Need a Word of Encouragement?
Like many non-profits, the Houston Ballet has addressed a host of difficulties during the pandemic. With normal revenues from its 2020 season cut off, the organization faced the challenge of staying closely connected to its benefactors without the benefit of the production of performances. Its dancers, being elite athletes, needed to find a way to maintain their bodies, their skills, and continue to sharpen their craft in a world requiring social distance. Their instructors were forced to find new paths, not only to keep teaching but to inspire their students and performers under conditions in which group rehearsal was impossible. While many companies and organizations have had to scramble for ways to adapt, artists who rely wholly upon the patronage of live audiences confined in a theater, had nearly insurmountable hurdles to overcome.
To explain the measures the Houston Ballet took last year, Shawn Stephens, the chair of the organization's Board, gave a presentation at Rice University that I watched recently via Zoom. As part of it, he offered a short film the Ballet created in November 2020 during the height of the pandemic. It started with a black screen; then a short introduction rose out of the darkness, ?The Houston Ballet Presents.? This faded, and a single word appeared:
Before anything else occurred, with just these four syllables, the film had already created an emotional response in me. I caught my breath, leaned forward, and over the next five and a half minutes, experienced an astonishing celebration of color, movement, and life?a powerful performance by 62 dancers in street clothes at 19 recognizable venues all across our beautifully eclectic city. The film captured the breathtaking motion of the dancers as they embodied the choreography of the Ballet's famed artistic director, Stanton Welch, set to a composition entitled ?Black Lung,? a spiritually-tinged song by a folk music group from Saskatchewan called Dead South. If you?re an enthusiast of dance, a casual observer of the arts, or just tend to be proud of our city, you should check it out here.
There are certain words which strike a chord inside us, awakening us, stirring us toward whole-heartedness. Restoration is surely one of them. It captures what's been lost and what's been found in a single blow. There's a fortitude in it, a strength that feels well-earned. It stands sturdy there on the page evoking the idea that a return has occurred?a reinstatement to a desired, if not improved condition. A fuller-than-full recovery has taken place as together we've managed to navigate our way back by moving forward. Finally, most vitally of all, the word implies there's been a visitation of grace. The Houston Ballet's short film, Restoration, ends with a resilient trio of confident, determined, and creative dancers returning safely to the ballet company's headquarters in the heart of our theater district. They?re home.
Last week my son, Hank, called from college in California. He was writing a paper (due the next day, of course) which required him to choose then write about one of the risks museums face with respect to their art collections. We talked first about dramatic, but unlikely occurrences like a Thomas Crown-like museum heist, or the unexpected act of a knife-wielding vandal, but I told him I imagined the biggest risk, particularly to paintings, was simply exposure to light and time. As the subject of an overnight paper, this fell flat with him, but it intrigued me sufficiently that I began to research the craft of art restoration on my own. I learned that while art historians, museum curators, and artists themselves are needed to do one part of the crucial work, chemists looking at pigments through infra-red cameras and microscopes and materials scientists examining fabrics with x-rays and gamma rays are also needed to determine the best way forward. It's not all science and not all art, but a sort of dance between the two.
With regard to coming out of the pandemic, maybe we?re not quite home yet, but we can see it from here. And as we all move forward toward full restoration, it's going to take everyone to make this last push to navigate our way back?the artists and the scientists, the poets, the engineers?everyone. But once there, I?m confident we'll all be dancing together.
Visit me, visit all of us, with the grace of restoration. Amen.