Barbara Pontecorvo

Duration: 1hr: 3Mins
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Interview with: Barbara Pontecorvo
Interviewed by:
Date: September 15, 1975
Archive Number: OH 140

Interviewer
0:00:17.0 Well, to begin the interview, how many years have you actually danced with the Houston Ballet Company?

Barbara Pontecorvo
This is my 5th season. We go in seasons, not really years, like from October—no—August until May is a season. I have a cold, so my voice isn’t going to be very loud.

Interviewer
That’s all right. I’ve turned the machine up.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Okay.

Interviewer
So, how did you first happen to hear about the Houston Ballet Company?

Barbara Pontecorvo
I didn’t know about it at all. I was 17, and I had just come back from New York where they had—I had a scholarship with Horton’s Ballet Company in New York City. They had sent me home because—well, that’s kind of awful. Anyway, they had sent me home, so I was considering giving up dancing and all. They had an audition, and I thought, “Well, why not?” But, I had never heard of them before—in New Orleans—this is in New Orleans. I went, and the guy there said the director would like me. So, I came over to Houston and auditioned, and she did very much. I was pretty luck.

Interviewer
Were you auditioning for the position of principal dancer?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh, no, no. I was just trying to get in the company.

Interviewer
And when did you become a principal dancer?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:01:32 Last season was my first season.

Interviewer
Is this a common thing? Do people rise in the company as it were?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. Yeah. Especially in small companies. Like, in a larger company, I wouldn’t have come up this soon. I don’t know if I would have come up at all, but if you stay with them long enough, eventually you get at least a soloist or demi-soloist, if you stay there.

Interviewer
Were you a little bit apprehensive when you first joined the company? I mean, it was a fledgling company and wasn’t well established?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No, because I was so young. It was all so exciting. It didn’t matter to me.

Interviewer
It looked good?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah.

Interviewer
Are you a native of New Orleans?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah.

Interviewer
You are?

Barbara Pontecorvo
From New Orleans.

Interviewer
Now that you’ve been with the company for 5 seasons, do you regard it as your home or as kind of a step on the ladder to bigger and better things?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:02:29 Well, both. Like, I no longer speak of New Orleans as my home. Houston is my home, but I do want to go on to a larger company because this company is growing very fast, but it’s not growing as fast as I am. Like, I’m getting older faster than it’s growing. In dancing, you can’t stick around for that long because your body can’t take it.

Interviewer
Right.

Barbara Pontecorvo
I’ve got about 15 years left in ballet, so if I don’t really—so I have to move.

Interviewer
By a larger company, what do you have in mind—something like the New York City Ballet?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No. I’m dying to go to Ballet Theatre—American Ballet Theatre. That’s my dream.

Interviewer
Do other dancers in the company have this problem? Are they eager to go some place else?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Not all of them. A lot of people are happy to stay here because it is small, and it’s like a family thing. We all know each other very well, and we’re all very friendly. We can throw parties any possible minute and invite the whole company and you can fit them in your apartment or in your hotel room, as it may. So, a lot of people are happy here. Other people are not as ambitious, maybe, as I am. They’ll be happy to stay here.

Interviewer
Do you look forward to the time when it will be possible to satisfy the ambition of a really good dancer in Houston?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:04:20 Oh, yes. Houston’s got a lot—Houston’s got a lot of money, and I think they have a ballet audience that my company has cultivated because they know when to applaud—they know when to do things. When I first came it was just incredible. It was like they were sitting on their hands and they were afraid to applaud. Now they know when and how and everything, so yeah. They’ve become very appreciative, which is really nice.

Interviewer
To what do you attribute this change in the sophistication of the audience?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Just seeing it. We have gotten a lot of—a lot more-not recognition—press releases. We’ve gotten a lot more advertisement in the paper and on the radio and people know about it. They come first to see Miller Theater, which is out in the park, and it’s free and it’s a lot of fun. You sit out under the stars and watch little ballerinas on the stage. They think, well—that’s where they sell subscription tickets, so they come to see us in Jones Hall. They just come a lot more. My first performance of Paquita—this was 3 years ago—was a matinee performance. In Jones Hall, which seats 3,000, we had 50 people. Last year, we did a couple of matinee performances, and it was like half-full. That’s quite a step.

Interviewer
So, the promotion is improving?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah.

Interviewer
Do you have much personal contact with your audience? Do you mingle with ballet enthusiasts socially?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:06:12 Yeah. We do. After each performance—in every theater there is a room over to the right of the stage called the green room—no matter what color it is—it’s called the green room. That’s where you go after the performance and you stand in there, with your feet killing you from your point shoes, and you talk for half an hour to all—the little kids. Like after Nutcracker, millions of little kids come—just millions of them—and they all want to look at your costume and look at your makeup. We’ve gotten—after normal performances too—all the grown ups come, and they want to look at your costume and look at your makeup. You stand there and talk, so we’ve gotten a lot of—people come special to see one person dance that night, and they come back stage to tell her, “Oh, no. It wasn’t as good as last year, but it’s alright.” We’ve gotten a lot of—

Interviewer
This is interesting. Do you notice—the feedback you get from audience—is it increasingly sophisticated? People not only tell you that they thought you did better than the other night—

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah.

Interviewer
But, they’ll tell you why.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. Well, they can tell—some of my very best friends that I’ve gotten—just from the audience. There’s a couple people that come, and they come backstage afterwards—they go to the green room. I’m always there because my parents always come, so I always go to see my parents. I’m always in the green room. They come back and tell me, “What’s the matter? Were you upset—something wrong? Tell me about it.” They can just tell from the performance. It’s amazing. It really is. Not all the dancers have to go to the green room. We take turns. It’s just that I’m always there because my parents are always there.

Interviewer
How do you feel after a performance? Are you your own worst critic? Do you just super-evaluate what you do?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:08:12 Well, yeah. It depends—it depends on a couple of things—on how you felt you did, on how you feel anyway--not as if you did a performance or not, but how do you feel anyway. It also depends on what your director says immediately after. That counts a lot to me. If the director will come back and say that it was okay. Then, no matter how I felt that I did onstage, generally, they know what to look for, so I don’t feel as bad—if I thought it went bad. If I thought it went good and they say it went bad, then I feel really rotten because I can’t tell—I can’t tell why.

Interviewer
Right. How important is applause? Are you sensitized to applause?

Barbara Pontecorvo
You can’t tell. You can hear them if they scream and yell and all that, but they generally don’t do that. Otherwise, you can’t really tell unless it keeps going. Length is more important to me than loudness. I can’t hear it all that well.

Interviewer
What were some memorable occasions when you received a lot of applause?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Coppelia. My first Coppelia last year. I did the lead, Swanilda. It was a really neat night. I didn’t do anything wrong, for a change, and it was all very nice.

Interviewer
Do you find that audiences will applaud especially vigorously during certain ballets, like Coppelia or The Nutcracker, where they have some familiarity, and maybe on something more avant-garde, they’re not as likely to applaud?
Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. Especially in our company. In Coppelia and Nutcracker and Swan Lake and things, if they recognize the music and it looks pretty, they’ll applaud.

Interviewer
They’ll applaud.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Other things, like Mr. Clouser has done a number of ballets for us—three trios—one by Bartok—music by Bartok. It’s got some extremely hard parts in it for the guys. It’s eight guys and one girl, which is a lot harder than some of the parts in the “Waltz of the Flowers” in Nutcracker, but the audience doesn’t know. They just sit there and go, “That’s looks weird,”—which it does, it’s a modern ballet.

Interviewer
How much say do you have about what ballets are performed? If a group of dancers feel that their interests and talents would suit a particular ballet, how do you go about making that known?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:11:00 Well, I don’t know about other—in this company--we have a very, very good relationship with our director. So, we can—like we invite him to all our parties. So, we can sit there and get truck and them tell him, “You know, we’d really like to do such and such.” He doesn’t generally listen, but at least he knows. Actually, it’s not up to him anyway. It’s up to the general director, Mr. Holth, really. He’ll suggest music to Mr. Clouser to choreograph. Mr. Clouser generally does because it turns out—it’s good music. He doesn’t really—he’ll stick it in if he can—if we’ve done it before and he can stick it in a program, he will.

Interviewer
I would assume that Mr. Holth is also thinking about money, though He likes ballets that have a big draw.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh, yeah. Audience appeal, sure.

Interviewer
Right. Are the company’s dancers very competitive, even though you’ve described the company as a family, surely there’s some competition and some tension.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. A lot. I wouldn’t say too much among the principals because the three of us—there are three female principals in the company—are so different in temperament and ability that it—we really can’t compete with each other because there’s nothing to compete. Among the soloists, I’d say, there’s a lot of competition in the corps, yeah.

Interviewer
Would you elaborate a little bit on that statement—that you’re so different in temperament?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:12:43 Soili Arvolla is, I guess, our main principal. You couldn’t really call her that. We all are very equal. She’s married to another principal in the company Leo Ahonen. She has been principal for four years—yeah—four years. This is her fourth season as principal in the company. She’s very—I hope she never hears this—well, I would say her technique is not the best. Her technique is when you can do a million pirouettes and everything is so neat it’s perfect and balanced for years and all that sort of stuff.

Interviewer
Right.

Barbara Pontecorvo
But, she’s got a lot of audience appeal. Like, people go crazy over her. She gives a lot. She performs very well. Andrea Vodehnal is our other principal, besides me. Her technique is impeccable. She’s perfect. She’s the most beautiful dancer I think I’ve ever seen close up. She used to be principle with Washington—National of Washington—a couple years ago. Then, she left and quit for a while. She is the oldest, and she knows the most. She is just perfect—everything she does. Then, I’m last, and I’m the youngest, so I’ve got a lot of “freshness.” I don’t really know half the time what I’m doing. So, I’d say that we’re really very, very different. I compete mostly with the soloists. If I would compete with anybody—I can’t really compete with Andrea and Soili because they’re so different, but the other ones are more like me—they’re just—they’re younger.
Interviewer
Now, to take a hypothetical example. Let’s suppose you go onto another company and there’s a slot open for a female principal dancer, what happens then? Is the company liable to go someplace else and audition or are they liable to recruit within their own ranks?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:15:00 For principal, they’ll recruit—I would suppose Denise and Mary Margaret would become principal. They’re soloists right now. If someone from the corps—I guess Gloria—would become a soloist. They wouldn’t really go looking for a female principal unless they had one—unless someone knew of somebody that would really fit it well. I think they like to bring people up in the ranks. They like to have them go from corps to soloist to principal, like I did.

Interviewer
If you went to another company—

Barbara Pontecorvo
I’d be the corps. I’d be the back line.

Interviewer
You’d have to start from the—

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yes. Unless it was a—if I went to Ballet Theatre I’d be in the corps. If it was a small company, like maybe Pennsylvania or San Francisco, I’d might go in as soloist because I am good enough. I dance well enough, I think.

Interviewer
Are many dancers in the company interested in other aspects of the dance, such as choreography or teaching?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh yeah. I would say, at this point, they’re all more interested in choreography because they’re younger. Teaching is something you don’t look forward to because it means your career is over. I don’t think I’m ever going to teach—never. One thing, I’d get too impatient. I’d go crazy. It just sort of means that you shouldn’t go back on stage, unless you guest teach. A lot of people go down to Corpus Christi or to Galveston to teach in a university or schools for the summer, which is fine. It’s employment. We have no employment over the summer.

Interviewer
So, people are like hedging their bets. Well, how about choreography? Is that a somewhat different matter?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. Choreography is really neat to the people it appeals to because it’s like leaving something of yourself behind. You did it, and it’s what you think. It’s also what you think this dancer—this particular dancer—can do, which can be either a great complement or a great insult to the dancer. Chorography is very interesting to a lot of people.

Interviewer
Which reminds me—the phrase “leaving something of yourself behind”—have any of your performances been recorded or even videotaped?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Uh-hunh (affirmative). Yeah. You can’t videotape a performance. AGMA rules—AGMA is the union—AGMA rules that you can’t do it. It’s against the law because it can be sold for public viewing, which will bring in money to someone else besides the company or the union. We videotape a lot of rehearsals.

Interviewer
What happens to these tapes?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:18:02 Oh, they stay with the company. We look at them—like right now—we’re getting ready for Carmina in the park—Carmina Burana. We’ve been a little busy, so we haven’t gotten around to it—it starts this Thursday. So, we’re still learning it. We’re looking at the videotape—because the chorography can’t remember—the chorographer can’t remember back 2 years ago when he said it would happen. So, we’re looking at it and remembering what went next.

Interviewer
Would you describe for us a typical day of practice, say for the upcoming ballet?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh, for this—for Carmina?

Interviewer
Right. As example.

Barbara Pontecorvo
We start at 9:00 at the studio. Generally, you have to get there early so you can warm up yourself. So, let’s say you get there at 8:30, which means you wake up at 7:30, which is a pain. Last year we started at 11:00, so I didn’t have to get up until 9:00. Anyway, so you get there and you warm up and you take class, which is an hour and a half. Sometimes they give class just for men and for women 15 minutes later. They both are an hour and a half or an hour and 15 minutes or an hour. In the women’s class, it’s all point work after they get warmed up a little bit. In the men, it’s all jumps and twirls—things like that. After class, you have 15 minutes to a half- hour break, which is usually around lunchtime or a little bit before. Then, you go into rehearsals. The union states that no one dancer can go over 5 hours a day if you work 6 days a week, or 6 hours a day if you work 5 days a week.

Interviewer
Are there special rules for principal dancers?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:20:10 Uh-hunh (negative). No. No special rules. You work—if they need you for 5 hours a day, you stay there for 5 hours a day. So, it’s based on during the afternoon or at evening. Since we’re starting so early this year, we’re generally getting out around 5:30, which is pretty nice.

Interviewer
Are you ever bored during a rehearsal?

Barbara Pontecorvo
During rehearsal? Oh yeah. When they’re setting a ballet, which is showing it to us for the first time, and the choreographer is not even quite sure what he or she wants--she has to sit there and think about it for 15 minutes and you have to sit there and think about it for 15 minutes and you haven’t done anything—yeah—you can get very bored. When they’re re-setting a ballet you know by heart and all these other people are standing around trying to learn it--

Interviewer
Right.

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:21:04 Yeah. You can get very bored.

Interviewer
Do things get pretty hectic the last couple of days before the performance?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh yes. Yeah. People fall apart. In any one week before a performance—any kind of performance—no matter what it is—you can expect at least 6 injuries and you can expect people to just have hysterics on any little bit—. It gets really hairy there, especially when it’s a new ballet.

Interviewer
Is that something that you live in constant fear of—an injury?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No. Not constant fear. Unless you take—if you don’t take care of yourself, I would imagine you’re a lot more prone to injuries. I’ve been very lucky this year. Otherwise, it’s there. You can’t escape it. You’re going to get injured, no matter what. You see all this?

Interviewer
Yeah, bruises (inaudible).

Barbara Pontecorvo
You should see them higher up.

Interviewer
Which activities are most likely to lead to injury—just anything?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Just rehearsing a ballet, yeah. You can—we’ll go back to that choreographer setting the ballet and she sits there for 15 minutes and thinks. Your muscles can get very cold in 15 minutes. Then, she wants to try something and you go out there and try to do it. If you’re not warm enough, you can get hurt right there. You can twist your ankle or pull a tendon or tear a ligament—do a whole bunch of stuff.

Interviewer
I’ll ask a rather mundane question, but what arrangements are made for any injured dancer?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh, oh, oh, yes.

Interviewer
Is there anything through the union?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:23:07 Yeah, the union takes care of us very well. We have—[oh, excuse me—I wear contacts--]. AGMA gives you—we have Blue Cross and Blue Shield—what do you call it—insurance. If you’re injured in rehearsal—I think class, also—I’m not too sure. You go directly to the company manager, which is Jane Hayes. She will give you a form to fill out. Then, you go to the doctor. [Don’t worry I can talk.] You go to the doctor and you get it fixed and you get a bill. If it’s—not the company’s fault—but if it is done on company time, then you are reimbursed for it. If it’s really bad and you need to take off, you get 2 weeks pay, if you need to take off for that long. If you need to take off longer, then you go on workman’s compensation. That can be for a little while, but it’s not even half as much as unemployment.

Interviewer
Has that ever happened to you?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No, never. (knocking)

Interviewer
You have been lucky.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah.

Interviewer
Is there a fairly high rate of turnover in the ranks of the dancers—not the principal dancers now, but the other dancers?

Barbara Pontecorvo
There have been in this company because it is so young. In other companies, I would say, yes, there’s a lot of turnover. Other companies are bigger, so you don’t notice it as much.

Interviewer
Relatively speaking, how does the turnover in this company compare to a more established company? About the same?

Barbara Pontecorvo
About the same, yeah. Right. We had much less turnover last year. Just about everybody came back because this promised to be a very, very good year. I think it is going to be.

Interviewer
What is the primary reason for the turnover?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:25:17 Well, some people just decide to quite altogether and get really disgusted. Other people want to go on to another company. They go and try.

Interviewer
Do you think the turnover would diminish if the company was on a 52-week basis?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh, yes. Oh, god. Yeah. The 4 months that we don’t work, we go on unemployment. You know, everybody does, but that’s awful. I go to New York all the time and study, so it’s not too bad for me. I have a place to stay, and I have a lot of friends up there. There are excellent teachers in New York City—the best anywhere that I’ve ever found. Otherwise, god, you can just get bored to tears.

Interviewer
Do most people find some kind of job—even teaching?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. A couple of them teach. A couple of the guests with other companies. I do plays in New Orleans with Tulane. They have a little—a group—I do plays with them.

Interviewer
In the years that you’ve been associated with the Houston Ballet, you’ve seen the size of the company grow considerably. Has the overall quality of the dancers also grown—do you think?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:26:46 Oh, yeah. Any one of our dancers could go somewhere else and be just as important to them as they are to us. They’re that good.

Interviewer
But, there was a time when this was not the case?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No. No. We had some real klutzes a while back—me included. Yeah. It’s—the quality has grown tremendously.

Interviewer
Was there a year that was like at watershed? Was there a time when suddenly there was a noticeable change in the company—a new enthusiasm—new quality?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No. It’s been very enthusiastic the whole time. The quality, I would say, started to come up not last year but the year before—two seasons ago. I would say the quality really improved that year because all our soloists stayed, and we got one in particular that was very good. Then, last year, we got a bunch of corps dancers that were very good. This year the people that left have been replaced by good people.

Interviewer
By way of illustration of this improving quality, what are some works that might be performed this season that couldn’t have been performed when you first came with the company?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:28:12 One that was performed last season that we will repeat is Swan Lake and Swan Lake Act 2. We could never have done it when I first came—never—not only because of the size—because we couldn’t have done it. Well, Coppelia, and things like Three Trios—the one I was talking about before. The boys could never have done it before. Potted Cot (??), which we’ll do in ________(??) and the one with Carmina. A lot of the works—like a lot of them—the ones we’re doing now, we didn’t do before. They are generally newer and harder—the ones we’re doing now.

Interviewer
When a prestigious principal dancer comes—a guest artist—comes to work with the company, what is the relation like between he or she and the company.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh. It’s funny. The first time we see him we are all in awe--you know, “Oh my God, is that really him?” Then, we kind of look a little closer and they’ve got just as many faults as we do—just they’re a little bit stronger, I guess. We get to know them. By the end of the performance, we’re giving them a Houston Ballet t-shirt and all this mess, and they’re like one of us. It’s just—I guess—just like anybody else. We’re very shy at first, unless they’re temperamental and a pain in the neck, which we haven’t had yet, really.

Interviewer
What makes a superstar?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Right now, I would imagine you would have to be foreign to be a superstar in this country.

Interviewer
Why is that?

Barbara Pontecorvo
I don’t know. There’s just more glamour attached to it. Like all the ones that you really hear about now are people like Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. We have got some American ballerinas coming up. Cynthia Gregory and Gelsey Kirkland are both very well known, but not as well as Makarova and Franchi and people like that. Erik Bruhn, which came from Denmark. Franchi came from Italy.

Interviewer
Right.

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:30:39 Makarova came from Russia. Baryshnikov, too, and Nureyev. They come over here already established and, of course, they’re excellent. They get very well known.

Interviewer
That’s sort of what I was driving at—what is the role of public relations or PR in making a superstar?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. Well, their public relations is excellent, I guess. I don’t think I know exactly what you mean.

Interviewer
Do you have an agent?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No, I don’t.

Interviewer
Would that be the first step in a rapid rise—obtaining an agent—or is that not a common practice at all?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Not until you become to the point where you’ve got so many guest appearances scheduled that you can’t keep up with them. I don’t think I’ll ever have an agent. No. I wouldn’t consider one.

Interviewer
Who advises you? Do you have something like an adviser?

Barbara Pontecorvo
The director, Mr. Clouser, would advise me if I needed it, but if someone asked me to guest and it wasn’t during company time, I’d go. It’d be fine.

Interviewer
How has the resignation of Nina Popova affected you and the other dancers?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:32:04 It affected me very much. She was the one that was behind me the whole time. She pushed me, and like I’ve got a very bad weight problem. I gain weight very rapidly, very rapidly. A lot of dancers are not principals at 21. It’s a little rare—not very. I was a principal last year when I was 20, and it was because of her. She pushed me because she believed in me so. She was a very, very good friend of mine. Not all the other dancers liked her. They were very critical because she was not cut out to be a director. She should have been something like a ballet mistress because she was excellent at rehearsals. As a director, I don’t think she knew exactly what she wanted or else the company grew above—from what she expected—in so short a time. It affected me very much. I was very upset to see her go.

Interviewer
Why did she resign?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Well, we had a lot of problems 2 years ago—2 seasons ago. Then, last year, it all sort of came up again. It’s all pretty complicated. I guess she resigned because she felt she wasn’t wanted anymore. The backers didn’t want her. The board—board of directors. The other dancers are mostly very happy because they feel that with Mr. Clouser—and I do too—that the company will go in a better direction. Nina sort of wanted classical ballets that nobody else did, such as Constancia, which is a neat ballet. Well, it was neat 30 years ago, but it’s not so fine anymore or Designs with Strings (??) and Capriccios, which all are beautiful ballets, but people aren’t interested. Mr. Clouser is choreographing really fine things for us—for the company—based on us. So, it’s going in a better direction.

Interviewer
Has this personally changed your plans with the company? Are you more inclined to leave now that she has left?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:34:44 No. No, not really. I didn’t really expect to come back this year. I love this company very much, and it doesn’t bother me at all that I am here, because I did audition with Ballet Theatre four times this summer and they didn’t accept me. They kept telling me, “Come back, you know, in a little while,” which is what they do with everybody, so I’m not really all that upset. No, I was going to try to leave. I’ve been trying to leave ever since 2 seasons ago—auditioning.

Interviewer
It seems to me from what you’ve said so far that a person in ballet, whether they’re directing or dancing, their ego is constantly on the line. There is a kind of—I won’t say insecurity—but there is always the challenge.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh, insecurity, yes. Yeah. A lot of insecurity. Yeah. The way I say I think—after I say something about myself, right? Yeah, you have to be pretty sure of what you can do, and you have to be pretty sure of what—like right now—I’m going through a pretty hard time. We have a lady here with us, Ruthanna Boris, who is setting Ragtime. It’s a ballet done to music by Scott Joplin, and it’s a fantastic ballet. It’s about the hurricane in 1900 in Galveston, only Galveston got mad and wouldn’t let us use the name “Galveston Suite.”

Interviewer
Right. Right (inaudible) Texas Trilogy.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah, Texas Trilogy, right. They wouldn’t let us use the name “Galveston,” so it had to be changed to “Ragtime.”

Barbara Pontecorvo
Anyway, I’ve got the lead in it, and Ms. Boris is trying to get across to me what it is she wants. Our first performance of it was last night. No. Two nights ago—Saturday night—in Corpus Christi. It wasn’t finished yet and they—she went out front and said it wasn’t finished and don’t expect that much—and they liked it anyway. Anyway, she’s trying to get across to me what she wants out of this ballet and out of me. So far, I can’t understand her. I can’t figure out what it is she wants. I’m really a mess right now in that ballet.

Interviewer
Maybe she is not sure herself.

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:37:26 No, she’s not. That’s another problem. It’s so different from what she first described—what she has tried to give to me now. It is set in a bordello in Galveston, and I’m the madam of the house. This is sort of like a party, but it’s on the night the hurricane hits. It’s not really a regular business evening. It’s a party, and we’ve invited all these people. The first part of it is set in 1975 in the bordello in Galveston. You know, it’s a wreck right now. I walk through trying to gather up all these ghosts to come back and have fun. It’s 75 years after the hurricane. We’re going to get together and re-live that night. I don’t know why—we all died—(inaudible)

Interviewer
It sounds like a nightmare.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Really.

Interviewer
It sounds very melodramatic.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. The fun before is worth it. (talking at once)

Interviewer
Well, if you don’t mind my asking, what was it that Nina Popova did that got through to you?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Well, no. She never—all the ballets I did for Nina—she accepted the way I did them, which Ruthanna isn’t, obviously. Nina just had a lot of faith in me, which of course gave me a lot of confidence. I know Mr. Clouser also has a lot of faith in me now. I know that very well. It’s just not the same because last year I had Mr. Clouser and Nina. This year it’s just Jim.

Interviewer
Mr. Clouser remarked that he thought the dancers in the company were very individualistic.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh yeah.

Interviewer
You go along with that?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:39:23 Yeah. That’s why I think we have a crummy corps because nobody blends with each other. Separately, they are fantastic dancers, but you sort of have to have boring dancers to have a good corps. All do everything exactly the same and exactly the same time and listen to every beat of the music exactly the same way. Our dancers are so different that you can pick them out in the middle of something like Swan Lake. You can pick out each of these swans and they all look exactly alike, but they all dance differently, which I think is good. I don’t think you need a great corps—look at New York City Ballet. They have the worst corps ballet in the world. I’m losing my voice—(inaudible)

Interviewer
You want to take a couple minutes and drink some coffee?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No. That’s okay.

Interviewer
In what direction do you see the company heading in the future. You mentioned that it was going to change under Clouser’s directing. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:40:30 It’s getting more contemporary—not really modern—contemporary, which is going to have more appeal to the younger people of Houston, I think. Also, we’re getting more recognition in things like Dance magazine, which every dancer reads like a Bible every month. If you’re mentioned in Dance magazine, you’re really getting somewhere. We are. We’ve had a couple of reviews—very good reviews. In other dance publications, people are starting to know about Houston Ballet—even though it’s so young—we’re only 8 years old. San Francisco Ballet is something ridiculous—like 100 years old—and they’re still not all that well known. I would say we’re doing pretty well. We’ve been compared with them on the same level, so I would say we’re doing pretty well.

Interviewer
How long do you think it will be before you become a full-time resident company, which is what 36 weeks a year?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah—no. We have 32. Thirty-six is—I didn’t know that. Is that what Jim told you?

Interviewer
Yes, as a matter of fact.

Barbara Pontecorvo
36?

Interviewer
How long before you become, let’s say, a year-round company—a really established company? (talking at once) Do you see that happening in the next five years?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No. No. That won’t be for a long time. That’s very hard to do. That entails a lot of money.

Interviewer
Well, the money is here. I mean, this is a very prosperous city.

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:42:18 I know, but they haven’t given it. They’ve given plenty. They’ve given a lot. The Board has been wonderful to us, but they haven’t—they haven’t given that much. That’s a whole lot of money. That would be something like 30 dancers for 52 weeks of the year, including tour and per diem and Jones Hall, which is stage hands, stage managers, lighting electrician, the lighting equipment. That would be a lot of money.

Interviewer
Do you find yourself feeling that you’re competing for the cultural dollar, as it were? Are you conscious of competition between, say the SPA and the opera and ballet?

Barbara Pontecorvo
No. I don’t really. I think that Houston is pretty equally divided in that respect. It’s all the same people that go to listen the symphony and the opera and the ballet and whatever comes to town. It’s generally the same people.

Interviewer
Is there a lot of mingling between the members of the different performing arts, say between the members of the symphony and the opera and the ballet and stage hands?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Stage hands, yeah. I know all the stage hands, and I know a lot of the orchestra people—not that many of them. Opera, I know no one. The Alley, I know no one.

Interviewer
So, each of the performing arts is self-contained as it were?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. Well, we go to see them perform, but we don’t know any of them.

Interviewer
Well, I’ve gone through my prepared questions. Louis, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Louis
Well, I was just going to go back to something you mentioned in the very beginning about really the short period which a dancer has to perform.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah.

Louis
You said 15 years.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. Well, after that, unless you’re really somewhat and everyone knows you and you have consistent good classes and can really take care of yourself, well, everything starts to go. Like, your muscles start getting down here and, generally, your energy just can’t take it anymore. I would say when I’m around 35, 38, I’ll probably have to quit. You have to have something after that to look forward to, which I do. When I’m 40, I’m going to be so fat. Anyway—

Louis
Strange that you should say that when you’re so slender at this moment.

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:45:19 Well, I lost a lot of weight this summer. It’s helped a lot.

Louis
What do most dancers do at that age—all of them can’t teach.

Barbara Pontecorvo
No.

Louis
So, what happens to them?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Well, they go back to school. You hardly ever finish school. We have a couple of really ambitious people in the company right now that are going to U of H while they dance.
Louis
Are they doing graduate work?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Yeah. It’s amazing. I can’t see how they can do it. I’d go nuts, but then I didn’t even finish high school. No, I finished by correspondence, but that took me a full year.

Interviewer
Do you find that these people when they go back to school that they have diversified interests?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:46:06 Yeah. We have some people in the company that can talk of nothing except ballet-- that’s it. These are the people you do not invite to parties. Then, we have other people that can talk about the whole world but not in a very intellectual sense. These are the ones that you do invite because they’re nuts. Then, you have the ones that go to school. They’re generally a lot saner than the rest of us because they do have other things that they have to do. They don’t sit around and think about the next performance.

Interviewer
Is there a danger that cliques could form within the company or have they formed?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh, they have. Oh, yeah. Well, you have the people that go out and get drunk every night and then you have the people that go home and do their needlepoint. Yeah. It’s some. It’s pretty fairly divided. Like, I’m in the group that on tour—no matter what you’re doing the next night--performance wise—after this performance this night you go out and get drunk. You can’t relax any other way. If you just go home and go to bed, you don’t sleep, and it does you no good anyway. I can’t understand the people that just go back to the hotel and go to sleep. It would drive me nuts.

Interviewer
You get really wound up.

 

Interviewer
Is there a status thing at work? Does the fact that you are a principal dancer and someone else is not a principal dancer—

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh, no, no.

Interviewer
Erect a kind of barrier?

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:47:51 No. No. Not at all. Not in this company. I would imagine in another company there would be—not in this one. It’s very loose.

Interviewer
So, people divide up by interest and not so much by rank.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Oh, yeah. Definitely.

Interviewer
Well, at this point in the interview now, in case we have neglected anything, we would just like to open the interview to you and ask if there are any other remarks you would like to make about the Houston Ballet. For example, what do you find to be unique about the ballet, if anything?

Barbara Pontecorvo
Well, about my company. I just feel that it’s a super company, and I wish that it were growing fast enough that I could stay here. No, that’s not true. I’m very comfortable here, which is very dangerous for a dancer. If you get comfortable, you get sloppy. You can’t pull yourself back together. You think it’s not really all that worth it because they’re not going to kick you out. I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I don’t think I will because, being the youngest principal dancer, I constantly have to prove that I am worthy to be a principal, especially since Nina left. A lot of people feel—probably they’re right—that I was pushed much too fast and I shouldn’t be a principal at all. I should be just a soloist maybe and that I wouldn’t be in this position anyway. I constantly have to keep improving because if that ever turns out to be right, well, then I’m going to quit. I don’t feel that way. I think that I am good enough to be at least a soloist, if not a principal, because—well, just generally--because I’ve noticed that audiences do like the way I dance and they do look for me. That counts a lot.

Louis
Are your critics in the lower ranks—that you just said.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Critics—I do run to the paper every Saturday after performance and look to see what they said. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up with the paper. It’s one person’s opinion. It’s not the public at all. If this one person doesn’t come to see you dance. Well, it’s only $9 orchestra seat. It doesn’t matter that much. If the public likes the way you did it and screams and hollers in Jones Hall the night before--that’s what counts. Critics are generally wrong—what can I say? Even when they’re saying something nice, it’s wrong. They said something about—what was it—about Napoli last year. One—and they are always different—the two—they never agree. They’re both wrong.

Interviewer
Is that peculiar to Houston or is it just critics in general are wrong?

Barbara Pontecorvo
I guess Carl Cunningham is going to kill me. It’s pretty general, yeah, except in New York where they are pretty educated as to dance.

Interviewer
Right.

Barbara Pontecorvo
00:51:46 Clive Barnes is an excellent reviewer and Anna Kisselgoff is okay. These are people from the New York Times. Down here, I don’t think Mr. Cunningham really knows what he’s talking about and neither do the rest of them. It’s their opinion, and that’s what they’re paid to write for, so that’s what they’re doing.

 

Interviewer
Well, it’s been a very interesting interview and, on behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives, I would like to thank you very much for your time.

Barbara Pontecorvo
Thanks a lot. I enjoyed it.

00: 52:23 (end of audio)