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Interview with: James Clouser
Interviewed by: Unknown Interviewer
Date: September 9, 1975
Archive Number: OH 069
I: 00:03 Interview with James Clouser, September 9, 1975. To begin the interview, I’d like to ask you a couple of background questions. First, how many years have you been associated with the ballet or active in ballet?
JC: I’ve been active in ballet since I was 16, and I’m 40, so that makes 24 years that I’ve been working in the field of ballet.
I: What was your first experience?
JC: 00:37 My first thing was I saw the American Ballet Theatre perform when I was 16. I was in college at Eastman School of Music in Rochester. So somehow I wanted to dance, and there was a dance studio connected with the school, the Eastman School. And so I went up and traded lessons for being pianist for some of the ballet classes. I studied there a year and a half, and then I left the music school to go into dancing from that point. I went to the American Ballet Theatre School in New York, joined the American Ballet Theatre Company, toured with them for a year and a half, and then went to Canada and worked with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for ten years. I started as a dancer and became principal dancer, ballet master, choreographer, and assistant to the director there. And then I figured I’d been ten years in one company, and being ballet master meant you were always teaching the same old roles to new people, so I wanted to choreograph more. I went back to New York, and I taught at the Juilliard School of Music two years and then Connecticut College American Dance Festival for two years, at which time I was approached by Houston Ballet to come here as ballet master. I believe that was in 1971. I came down that fall, and I’ve been here ever since. First I was ballet master, then I simply choreographed for one year. Last year I was choreographer in residence, and at the end of the season I took over as acting artistic director, which I am now.
I: Right. What were your feelings when you came to a young company to work as the ballet master?
JC: When I went to Winnipeg in 1958, it was also a small company, starting as a young company in a sense, and so I worked with them in a pioneering sense so that when I came to Houston in 1971, it was a very similar feeling. There’s an excitement working with a young company. You know that you’re building something new. You don’t have to follow old guide rules. You can find new things. I had to find out the feelings of the city of Houston, and that was strange to me because I had not lived in the South before or had not lived in Texas. In some ways I found Houston very much like Winnipeg: flat city and spread out. That helped me, but I found unique things in Houston that excited me very much.
I: Was that one reason you were approached was your previous experience with the Winnipeg company?
I: Would you describe for us the duties of the ballet master of the Houston Ballet? You mentioned earlier that you were teaching the same old roles. Was that true here?
JC: 03:46 Yes, it is true. The ballet master is the person who is like the drill sergeant. He has to train the company, keep them in shape, make sure they all dance with the same style of dancing, the same rhythmic accents, and he knows the repertory. So his job is to teach any new dancers who come into the company the old ballets that remain in the company’s repertory. That takes a certain particular kind of person. He has to have a hawk eye, he has to really know the ballets, he has to enjoy polishing them up and shining them up over and over and over again. And although I had done that job in Winnipeg for several years and was brought here to do it, I found that really wasn’t the job I liked doing best. I get a little itchy to go on and do new things, and so the second two years I was here I worked as a choreographer and choreographer in residence and worked in some aspects with Nina Popova, who was my predecessor as director, in making artistic decisions. It seemed to be a better position for me in that sense than a ballet master position.
I: Of course you succeeded to the position of artistic director upon her resignation. What prompted her to resign?
JC: From my understanding of the situation, she was brought in to build a very small company into a larger company, and the particular direction that she seemed to want to take the company and the direction that the board of directors felt the company should grow in—I think after she had been here seven years—was a divergence of opinion. I don’t think that she did something wrong. It was that she didn’t do what she wanted to do and where the board felt the company was going were two different directions. And so they informed her of this, and I believe she felt, “Well, it’s better that I resign,” because she couldn’t change herself.
I: Would you elaborate a little bit on the direction that she wanted to go?
JC: 06:03 Her background was from the Ballet Russe and early days of American Ballet Theatre, and there is a certain tradition that was embodied in the Ballet Russe that was her background and her training, and it was based on a variety program, based on successful choreographies proven successful with the public, based on a star system where certain luminous personalities were the drawing attraction for the company. And for a young company, I think Houston doesn’t have luminous stars. The old-fashioned repertory doesn’t really suit the younger dancers, and so trying to use that old-fashioned formula on a new, young company may have been where the parting ways were.
I: Were there any changes in the season’s schedule after she departed?
JC: Yes. There couldn’t be any major changes because many things had been contracted and advertised. But I did make one change in the Jones Hall repertory season. We had been scheduled to do a work by Anton Dolin called Variations for Four, which requires four male virtuosos, and in my opinion, we did not have four male virtuosos, and I felt it was unfair to our boys. It would be like asking a very nice lyric soprano to sing a coloratura role, and then the critics would criticize it for not being a coloratura, and the fault would be really in the planning, not in the dancing. So that I changed.
I: What was the reaction of the dancers to her departure?
JC: I think they did not make any outward vocal reaction. There were certain amounts of tenseness in the company previous to her departure because there was this dichotomy between her feelings of the way the company should go and the way the company actually was going which made some of the dancers feel uneasy. I think that, not due to any personality conflict but due to simply the fact that now the company is really heading in the same direction that all the dancers would like it to go in, they feel less uneasy than they did before.
I: I wanted to ask you a kind of hypothetical question. If I were a dancer and was eager to see some work performed, how would I go about influencing the management to get that work performed?
JC: Aha! (both laugh) You could just say to the director, “Remember such and such a ballet? Wouldn’t that be nice? Have you looked at the videotape in a long time? When are we going to do Paquita again?” And that might put the seed in the director’s mind, and he would have to answer you, and he would have to question his reasons for wanting or not wanting to do it again. I don’t think the dancer has any other means than that, other than developing himself to be the kind of a dancer that the director would want to put into that work. So it’s difficult. I think I know what you’re after because the dancers have a lot to do with the direction the company takes. But it has to do with how the dancers develop as personalities, how they improve themselves, and then the choreographers who come in, the artistic director can look at them and say, “With this set of dancers I can do such and such.” So there’s a lot of unconscious and conscious work there on the dancer’s part.
I: Would you describe your dancers as highly individualistic?
JC: 09:51 Yes. I think that’s the difference between myself and Ms. Popova. She had a very classic mold, and I don’t mean by classic ballet, but I mean the mold was a classic formula to follow to build a company. So therefore, when you are following that mold, you look for a ballerina, you look for a premiere dancer, you look for corps de ballet dancers and soloists. You look for a type but you don’t look for individuals. In my approach to the company I look for individuals and not types. I look at my company right now, and they are really very individualistic. I hope they will break molds. (chuckles)
I: Aside from changing one or two works on the schedule, did you introduce any other changes such as changes in the practice routine?
JC: Yes. See, I came in midseason last year, so the changes I made then were rather minimal. But since then, now we’re into a new season, and I’ve made a lot of changes. We are right now working in a small studio with not enough space, and we share it with a school. The school used to take away a lot of time. We had split schedules and rehearsals. Dancers would have to come in, stop dancing when the school came, and then start again late in the evening. And often we didn’t call evening rehearsals because the dancers were too tired, so we didn’t use our full rehearsal time. So I dropped classes from the school. I reduced the size of the school activity, and now we are able to do all of our rehearsing between 9:00 and 5:30 in the day in the company, which gives the dancers a much better workday. They work more hours, and they enjoy it more. They like to work. They don’t like not to work. That’s one of the things that I changed, very much of that.
I: Would you briefly describe a typical routine?
JC: By routine, do you mean a daily routine?
I: Right. Do you start with something like plies and then go to—
JC: 11:56 Yeah. We start with an hour and a half class which starts with usually— The mold is to start with what is called plie, which are slow bending exercises for the large muscle groups of the legs, forward and backward bends of the body for the large muscle groups of the body. You could just as well start with the yoga asana because that does the same thing. The idea is that you start with large muscle groups, and then we concentrate in on to ankles, knees, smaller parts of the body until everything is very warm and articulate. That takes about an hour and a half. In that time we work on technical things, musical phrasing, and try to develop a style so when the dancers work together in the class, they sense how each other move. Then they have a 15-minute break, and then each dancer under union contract is allowed to rehearse five hours a day, and I try to get five hours out of everybody but the principal dancers. The principal dancers usually do heavier, demanding work, so I rarely work them their five hours. I do if I have to, but I don’t. The way we work, there are generally three or four ballets in rehearsal at once. And every choreographer wants their ballet rehearsed, so to get that all in in five hours is like a jigsaw puzzle.
I: Right. By opening night, about how many man hours of practice have gone into a work?
JC: Let’s take, for example, the work we’ll close the season with, which is Caliban, based on Shakespeare, because it’s a full evening. In rehearsal time, we will have 150 hours of rehearsal time of the dancers. That’s how many hours of rehearsal time. Plus, I have been working on it for a year. The musicians will have been working on the score for six months. The costume designer will be starting next week, and she has until May, so that’s about five months for her to work on it. The costumes themselves will be done probably in a period of a month’s time. But in rehearsal hours, 150 hours.
I: Of those hours, how many take place at Jones Hall?
JC: The last day and a half.
I: Is that all?
JC: Which is not enough. It is not enough.
I: (chuckles) That’s amazing. How much say do you have in choosing a guest artist?
JC: I have complete say, but I listen to advice from people who tell me that such and such a person will give you more box office. That is one consideration. That’s not the final consideration for me. For me it is what will this person give the audience and what will they give my company in the presence of having them here? Will they do something to enrich the company? If I wanted box office, I would probably book the Panovs, but I don’t believe the Panovs will give the audience rich enough to pay for what they ask, and I don’t believe they’ll give our company anything in return, so I’m not having the Panovs.
I: That’s sort of what I was driving at. Is there a point where Mr. Holth would say, “No, they’re asking too much.” Or he might consult with you. Are financial considerations paramount?
JC: 15:38 I think financially he would recommend who we could afford. In other words, he’d say, “If you would like the Panovs,” he would say to me, “they would cost me so much money, but the box office would cover the difference. Do you want the Panovs?” Then I would say either yes or no. My consideration then would be those other things that I said to you.
I: Right. So there’s a kind of calculus at work here.
I: Would you describe the fee structure of the superstars in the ballet world?
JC: Well, let’s start from the bottom and go up.
JC: The corps de ballet makes somewhere, in this company, between $175 and $180 to $250 a week depending on their seniority. I’m not sure of the amount because they’ve just gotten a cost of living adjustment in the salary, so I know it’s above $175. The soloists who carry a very heavy load because they do both corps de ballet and principal roles in this company get $5 a week more, which is not much. The principal dancers probably range from anywhere from $250 to $350 a week in this company. In larger ballet companies where there are more principal dancers in ballet theater, they may go up to $500 a week but not for the whole season. Then if we bring in a superstar, their fee may range from $1,000 a performance to $3,000 a performance, which is pretty high when you consider where we started with the corps de ballet. I would say that somebody like Eddie Villella—I’m just guessing but I would imagine that his salary with New York City Ballet, which is nearly a yearlong contract, probably is not upwards of $350-$400 a week. It’s probably less than that. But when he comes here guesting, he gets $2,000 a performance.
I: So that works out pretty well. What motivates a person who is making $175 a week? What keeps them doing it?
JC: 17:48 I guess because dance is something you are driven to do. People write music, people do poetry, people like to change what’s around them. They like to take the materials and change them. That’s what creativity is. Dancers take their bodies, time, and space, and there’s a certain inner drive that tells you you’ve got to dance. And so that’s what keeps them going. They have fought a lot through their union to improve their working conditions and try to raise their salaries, and the cost of living now in Houston is such that they make a decent living, in a sense. We still consider the ballets are pretty low paid, but they’re not starving anymore, and most of them are driving cars, which was not heard of when I was their age.
I: You’re hoping to go on a 52-week payroll?
JC: I think that’ll be five years before we’d even talk about 52. We’re 32 now. The next jump would be to 36, which gives us a change in status. It makes Houston a residence. In other words, as it is now, we have to get those 32 weeks in within a certain period because if we go to 36, we could require the dancers to dance those 36 weeks any time within the 52. Now it is they can go away in the summer and get other jobs, and we can’t suddenly ask them to come back for two weeks to take an engagement in the summer. Had we jumped to 36, we could do that.
I: What sort of jobs do they get in the off season?
JC: Most of them take other dancing jobs. They work with smaller companies in the summer where they get to do bigger roles, or the guest stars like Leo Ahonen and Soili Arvola do guest performances. They go to Chicago, as a matter of fact, every summer and they’re the big stars and they’re getting the thousands and thousands a week per performance when they go there, which is nice. Some of them take dance teaching jobs. A few of them take unemployment insurance.
I: And you teach yourself.
JC: I teach here in the school.
I: How substantially has the quality of the dancers increased since you’ve been here?
JC: 20:06 This is my fourth year. I would say— Who is going to hear this? (chuckles)
I: You have the option of restricting the interview if you’d like or a portion thereof, so go ahead and speak candidly.
JC: One person who was a principal dancer the year I arrived I would not now be able to get a job in the corps de ballet, and her work has not gotten worse. I’d say that the standards have gone up that much.
I: That’s quite an improvement. To what do you attribute this?
JC: Several things; first of all, the growth of the company artistically. They just have had more exposure and more performance experience so that they mature faster. We are attracting better dancers because the company is more successful, and people say, “It’s not so bad to leave New York and come live in Houston.” That’s probably the two main reasons.
I: When the company first started, they went to New York to audition for virtually all their dancers.
JC: Yes, and probably the last job they would have taken then was Houston. If they didn’t get anything else, they’d come to Houston. I auditioned this year in New York, and I had 180 girls and 80 boys wanting to come to Houston. I took two.
I: How many people are you getting now actually from Houston that have learned ballet here?
JC: Houston itself, we have had four or five people enter the company directly from our school here. We also have two or three other dancers who were not in this school but have joined the company. We have four or five Texans—two from San Antonio and one from Austin. We’re attracting people from Oklahoma, Tennessee, I hired a girl from Louisiana this year and one from New Mexico. So I’m trying, if I have a choice between an excellent dancer from New York or an excellent dancer from Oklahoma, I’ll take the one from Oklahoma if there’s no other criteria. If the one from New York is decidedly better, then I’ll take the one from New York.
I: Right. Do you expect this to snowball as the ballet grows in Houston and more people become involved in the classes and hence you’ll be able to draw more from the local area?
JC: 22:20 If we can make our school keep pace with the growth of the company. I’ll cite an example that happened in Canada. Vancouver at one time produced all the good dancers in Canada. Then the ballet companies began to grow, and suddenly, there were three hot ballet companies in Canada, and the Vancouver teaching scene did not improve. Now very few of the dancers come from Vancouver because there’s no company there and the standards aren’t as high. That could happen here.
I: Is the expansion of the school limited by the facility?
JC: It is right now. We are—knock on wood—hoping to have a new studio within a year, which would allow us to expand the school. But then also the quality of your teachers in the school must get better as the school grows.
I: I’d like to conclude the interview by asking you a few questions about the direction you see the ballet moving in the future. Shall we look for more avant-garde work?
JC: No. You should look for avant-garde work. It’s going to be there. But beside it I think there are going to be those classical works which are proven to be useful in general repertory, and I’m talking about Swan Lake, Sylphides, Napoli, Nutcracker, some of which we already have. I don’t believe we will add those kind of classic works which are, quote, museum pieces, which are special. People who really love classical dancing then want to see those works because they compare them, they add richness to a repertory. But our company, to me, doesn’t serve that purpose. It’s to also give opportunity for new choreography and kind of reflect the growth of this city. Houston is not a museum.
JC: It’s a very exciting, fast-growing city, and if the ballet is a museum, then it might as well be in another city.
I: So then we might also anticipate more dancers in the company.
JC: 24:23 I would say maybe after five years. I hope we can keep the company 30ish for a few more years because again, if the company grows too fast, its style doesn’t grow because you’re always adding new people, and then they don’t belong in the style of the company. So if we grow, it’ll grow slowly, not fast.
I: Five years seems to be a recurring theme.
JC: Well, we’re kind of like the Soviets. We’re thinking in terms of the five-year plan.
I: (laughs) Five-year plan. Right. Just one last question, and it pertains to your role with the company here. Do you look forward to continued association with the company?
JC: Hopefully. I do. It’s a testing period right now because the last two years my most successful role in the company has been as a choreographer. I’ve been able to create good works for this company, and somehow I’ve been able to make the company dancers happy to be here. And so that in a sense moves me into this director’s role. There is a lot of administration, and the point will be, will the administration kill off those other qualities that I have? So far, I think not. I think that administration is just a matter of—
I: I’m going to flip this—
[end of 069_01] 25:44
I: [beginning of 069_02] 00:03 Side two of the Clouser interview.
JC: We were talking about problems in administration and whether I would be able to cope with that. And so far, I’ve found that administration is a matter of closing the door at the right time to get time to make your schedule and put it out. I think the artistic decisions go along with the creative side that I have. I know what I want the company to look like, and so my artistic decisions are very easy. There’s a great staff of people to take care of all those money problems. I don’t have to worry about those things. I just have to worry the schedules. So I’ve not been finding it a problem.
I: But you would like to forgo your administrative duties and get back to choreography.
JC: I have choreographed two works since I have—three works—two and a half—and finished up one since I took over the directorship, and I don’t think my work has suffered in that period. As a matter of fact, I think it’s gotten better. I took a course in philosophy of dance when I was getting my master’s, and we talked about expression. And there is no expression without pressure. You have to have some pressure to express something. I’ve worked creatively in such a sense that I do not think about it ahead of time. In the back of my head I know I have a problem to solve creatively. I go in the studio, and there are my dancers, there’s my space, there’s my time, and I just let them all happen. I don’t worry about it. So far, the administration and the creativity have not stepped on each other’s toes.
I: But you probably have to sleep too.
JC: 01:46 I sleep from about 1:00 until 7:00. It seems to be enough.
I: That sounds like my hours. I’ve exhausted my prepared questions, and at this point, I’d just like to turn the interview over to you and ask you if there’s anything that we haven’t covered that you think is pertinent, something that would be of value for future researchers.
JC: Yes. One thing that dawns on me, if people are going to be researching ballet company in a sense, the growth of a ballet company, I have a theory about Houston Ballet; that it’s slightly unique from other companies for this matter: Most ballet companies in America have grown through the vision of one person who was either a dancer or a choreographer or someone very intimately connected with the dance world, a teacher perhaps. And this has not been so in Houston, and that’s probably been one of the problems with the early growth of Houston Ballet is that there was a great and strong knot, a nucleus, of interested people who wanted to see a ballet company in Houston, but none of them had the expertise. They weren’t teachers or choreographers. They were simply balletomanes who had a sense of community responsibility and pride and felt we should have a company here. So they hired people from outside, and the people from outside had no ax to grind. It was a job, but it wasn’t home. They didn’t come down to Houston and say, “By God, I’m going to build a ballet company or else.” And I think that that is one difference of the early years of Houston Ballet. It didn’t have that kind of thing, and it’s not to criticize anybody; it’s simply a fact. Since then, I think it’s changing now. There are more people around. I feel very proprietous [sic] about the company. The people I have on my staff now all feel this is more than just a job. And the dancers now don’t feel that they’ve come down from New York to do a job until they get better to go back to another company. Two-thirds of the company are people who want to see Houston Ballet make it. We have principal dancers who have moved here. We have foreigners who have taken out American citizenship and bought houses in Houston because they want Houston Ballet to be something. And so I think that’s a change in character the company is making at this point.
I: But this is almost a corporate thing. A lot of people want the company to be good and not one person.
JC: 04:19 Right. Yeah. We’re lucky in that sense because those other people who have been behind the company have been steadily there through thick and through thin. They haven’t let any discouragement say, “Oh well, we’re not going to make it.” They didn’t pack it up and didn’t stop raising the funds. They kept pumping it in. In that sense Houston is probably lucky because they have that board that’s interested.
I: That’s a very interesting insight.
I: I guess we’ll conclude the interview now. On behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives, I’d like to thank you very much for your time.
[end of 069_02] 04:51