Life as a Houston Ballet apprentice is both full of possibilities and a precarious situation. It’s the dancers’ first taste of life as a professional, but at the end of the year, there will be company spots for only half of them. Even an apprentice as talented as Liao Xiang, who made the finals at Prix de Lausanne last year and has attracted attention in her first months on the job, has to prove herself.
Xiang, 18, left her hometown of Wuhan, China, for the Beijing Dance Academy at 9. A third-place finish at Youth America Grand Prix earned her a scholarship to The Harid Conservatory, where she trained for a few months before transferring to Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. She was quickly taken into Houston Ballet II, where she spent the last two years. “They paid attention to the foundation of my technique,” she says. “The rep made me grow. We did everything from snow in Nutcracker to several of artistic director Stanton Welch’s ballets. That pace prepared me to be an apprentice.”
Houston Ballet apprentices have the same workload as full company members, performing in every repertory program and story ballet. And the company members, from principals to the corps de ballet, regularly help the apprentices along. “It’s part of the plan to have the company adopt the apprentices,” says Welch. “I am looking for how well they dance with everyone else.” Welch wants dancers who can fit in and don’t have an attitude.
This year, four of the five apprentices came through HB II. That extra history with the company in some ways gives them a leg up, since contract decisions happen in January (apprentices start in late July). “It’s tough because there’s a short period of time with just two reps and Nutcracker for apprentices to make an impression,” says Welch. “It’s ideal to be cast in something by a visiting choreographer.”
Xiang is adjusting quickly to life in the main company. “It feels simpler and more streamlined,” she says. “We aren’t trying to do everything like at HB II, where we participated in outreach, toured and danced both as HB II and with the main company.” Rehearsals for Welch’s Tutu and The Core and Balanchine’s Jewels currently fill up Xiang’s days, which stretch from noon until 6:45, with an hour for lunch in the afternoon.
However, it’s been a difficult transition to go from taking class with 18 dancers to 53. “I have to make sure I’m working properly,” says Xiang. “With such a large group, there is less focus on me.” Welch says this can be the hardest part of being an apprentice: “They need to maintain their technique because they actually may be doing less work than they did in school or in HB II.” To this end, additional technique classes specifically for apprentices are offered a few times a year.
Xiang loves that Houston Ballet’s rep includes both classical and contemporary work. “Classical is so familiar; it’s like my home,” she says. “But something happens to me when I dance contemporary work. I find a new part of myself.” HB II ballet master Claudio Muñoz says, “Liao’s built for classical technique. Her coordination between her pointe work and port de bras is extraordinary. Yet she’s simply on fire in Stanton’s Fingerprints. Suddenly, this swan is moving with wild abandon. I didn’t know she had such aggressive energy in her. She continually surprises me.”
Xiang has set her sights on doing the best she can during her apprentice year, proving herself worthy of a company slot. Right now, Houston feels like a perfect fit. “Even though Houston’s hot, the humid weather is the same as in my hometown in China,” says Xiang, who manages trips home three times a year. But it’s Houston Ballet’s focus on artistic excellence and challenging rep that keeps her in Texas. “In China, it’s about training. Here, they nurture a passion for dancing. I want to see just how far I can go.”
At a Glance:
Number of Apprentices: Five or six a season
Length of Contract: 44 weeks
Opportunities: Apprentices perform in all repertory programs and story ballets, plus a small number of outreach performances.