Downtown’s Theater District has been the cultural heart of the city for decades. A place where people of all ages, races and denominations have gathered together to experience vibrant, profound and fantastical works of art. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the damage to many of the venues and organizations was devastating, but they came back stronger than ever. Now, just a little more than two years later, COVID-19 has struck, forcing each organization to re-think the way shows are produced and executed. In today’s physically distanced way of life, the Theater District now looks to Houstonians for support, as their lights remain off and their stages dark. Despite all the challenges, the Theater District organizations continue to hold on to the mantra of “resilience”, something our city knows a thing or two about.
With 61 dancers and a budget of $33.9 million, Houston Ballet is the fifth largest ballet company in the United States. Known for their renowned productions at Downtown’s Wortham Theater Center (built especially for the company), the ballet is one of our city’s most beloved arts organizations. When the pandemic forced Wortham to close its doors, the ballet transitioned almost effortlessly into virtual programming.
“This pandemic is not the first time we’ve had to get creative behind the scenes so our dancers and production staff can make magic happen onstage,” says Houston Ballet Marketing and PR Director Angela Lee, who is well-seasoned from canceling and reshuffling performances due to natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.
After the cancellation of three ticketed shows in the spring, the ballet created Brunch with Houston Ballet — an exclusive series of 16 previously recorded ballets for ticket holders. The well-established Dance Talks lecture series soared to new heights, reaching a wider audience over Zoom through new titles, The Dancer Perspective and After the Curtain Falls.
But perhaps the most creative digital content we’ve seen thus far is HB at Home, an up close and personal look into how the dancers and artistic staff are keeping busy while social distancing. From soloist Harper Watters’ skincare routine and fashion show to principal dancer Karina González’s super juice toast with daughter Julia, HB at Home is the virtual content we’ve been obsessing over for months.
However, online content simply cannot compare to experiencing a ballet live. In addition, most of the content is provided free to the public, and with last season’s cancellations the Ballet is experiencing the same financial difficulties as their companions in the district.
“We’ve had to make difficult decisions for the season ahead because of the prolonged COVID-19 crisis,” says Houston Ballet Executive Director Jim Nelson. “Every member of our Houston Ballet family will be affected at some point during the season.”
In July, Houston Ballet made the difficult decision to cancel their fall in-theater performances of Love Letters and Mayerling, as well as holiday favorite The Nutcracker, which alone generates $5 million in revenue.
But not all holiday programming is canceled — the organization hopes to hold its first in-theater performance with the Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance on December 4, followed by a limited number of performances of a holiday special. As for spring 2021, the organization has a number of plans in place to ensure safety for both their dancers and patrons, all of which can be adjusted as the pandemic progresses.
To help recoup the financial loss of canceled programming, Houston Ballet has launched a $5 million fundraising campaign to restore its artists and staff for the longevity of the pandemic. Each contribution is matched dollar-for-dollar by a generous challenge grant by The Cullen Trust for the Performing Arts.