As I pull up to an unassuming, windowless building on the outskirts of Ridgmar Mall in Fort Worth, I find a small sign on the reflective glass doors that reads "Texas Ballet Theater: Press button for entry."
Fort Worth, the town of the cow, railroads and rodeos. This is the city that pushes Longhorn cattle down the street for the tourists, then herds the tourists into Billy Bob’s, right?
There is a dialectic at play here that still throws me. In a town where cowboy hats are worn without irony, you can also find the best museum district in the state. While the bright new money of Dallas builds show bridges across a muddy creek, the premier ballet company representing North Texas has settled here in the outskirts of Fort Worth. I give the building one more look just to make sure I’m in the right place, ring the bell and hear the door unlock.
Inside, it's discreet and professional. Offices lead off to both sides and in a conference room. There's an open computer and a phone conference in progress. Through two large, soundproof windows I can see a large practice facility. I was hoping for something out of a Degas painting and quietly hide my disappointment. Behind the glass, a few dozen dancers have gathered and are being dismissed from a morning workout.
As I’m led into the practice facility, the dancers are heading the other way. Out into the hall and the locker rooms to change into cleaner clothes, snack, stretch, or check their messages. As a group they are agile, nimble and athletic. With my arthritic hip, beer belly and 25 pounds of camera gear, I feel like an iceberg dropped into a school of fish. They stream by me easily with a warm “sorry” or “thanks,” as if they were the problem.
Rehearsal will begin again at 10:45 and last approximately 3½ hours. This will be a full run-through of Sleeping Beauty, which opens in a week. There is a five-minute break at the intermission point. Lunch will not be served. A pianist is in the corner working through the score. Next to him sits a gentleman with a larger bundle of music. His hands move through the air gently, and together they flip pages as they progress through the performance. The pianist will continue to play nonstop for the next 3½ hours. If he misses a note, it isn’t obvious to me.
Ben Stevenson sits front and center watching intently and occasionally passing a quiet comment to the woman sitting beside him, Anna Donovan. These two know dance like Bill Belichick knows defense. Donovan started training at the Royal Ballet School of England at age 10. After establishing herself in Europe she returned to her native Ireland, becoming a principal dancer in the Irish National Ballet. As a dancer, Stevenson (OBE) was part of Britain’s Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet. He has choreographed and directed across the world from London to Paris, Milan and Munich. Before coming to the Fort Worth Ballet Theater, he built the Houston Ballet into a nationally recognized company. They are ballet royalty, sitting here in Fort Worth.
"Positions everyone. Quiet please." A nod toward the piano, and Sleeping Beauty opens. There are minimal props — a mask here and there that need getting used to. There is also no chitchat, no horse play. The only sounds are the lone piano and the dance shoes as they make contact with the floor. As the intensity builds, you can hear the soloists breathing heavily, sucking in the oxygen required to make the impossible seem effortless. They are oblivious to everything except the next note and the next step. The iceberg photographer standing three feet in front of them doesn’t even register.
It hits me that this is what I came to see. This is what I asked to see. They are showing me how the sausage is made. Unlike politics, or sausage, this is beautiful. The production that opens to the public will be stylized and extravagant. The curtain at the opera house will rise to a full orchestra playing Tchaikovsky, and lavish costumes will drape the dancers. I can’t wait to see it. But there is an equal magic at work here in this bare room with the dull, fluorescent lighting. The potent mixture of sweat and dedication and exhaustion and elation and concentration, when only your peers are around to appreciate the triumph of getting it right in an art form that demands you get it right. This is what I came to Fort Worth to see.
The Fort Worth Ballet Theater Production of Sleeping Beauty opens this Friday at the Winspear Opera House.
Get a first look on our slideshow here.