Vitacca Ballet, Texas’ Newest Company, Makes Its Houston Debut

April 14, 2023

Vitacca Ballet’s Walsh Studio buzzes with energy as company dancers pound out the driving rhythms of Garrett Smith’s riveting Hypnotic Forces. The new ballet will premiere when Texas’ newest company makes its Houston debut April 20 to 21 at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston in a mixed bill appropriately titled “LAUNCH.”

A black and white photo shows a woman posed for a portrait, sitting cross-legged on a stool. She crosses her arms gently across her thigh, smiling at the camera. She wears a puff-sleeved blouse and black trousers with nude heels, her long hair down.
Kelly Ann Vitacca. Photo by Tati Vice, courtesy Vitacca Ballet.

The company’s affiliated Vitacca Vocational School for Dance, which celebrated its 11th anniversary this year, is well known in Houston dance circles. But the professional company, founded and directed by Kelly Ann Vitacca, is quite new. In 2015, Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre director Dominic Walsh decided to close his small, though beloved, Houston-based ballet company. He facilitated the transfer of the studio lease to Vitacca, who was then looking to expand her school. “Dominic made certain that we had a home, and for that we will always be grateful,” Vitacca says. Today, VVSD and Vitacca Ballet’s main rehearsal space is affectionately named “The Walsh Studio,” in honor of Walsh and the DWDT company.

Focused on developing the school, Vitacca did not plan on starting a ballet company—it happened organically. In 2020, she formed a small, project-based operation using the studio space to provide local artists with a safe place to work during the pandemic. “We didn’t know that we were building Vitacca Ballet at the time,” she says. The group went on to present a condensed concert with works by Robbie Moore and current Vitacca Ballet ballet mistress Tina Kay Bohnstedt at the Charles Bender Performing Arts Center in Humble, Texas, on February 27, 2021.

Vitacca offered the first official 32-week company contracts to four artists in the fall of 2021. By September the following year, she had a full company roster of eight dancers and a rehearsal assistant, Andrea Dawn Shelley. The company has already toured extensively in the past two seasons, with performances in Austin and the surrounding areas around Houston, as well as at the San Antonio Dance Gala; the Contemporary Dance Choreography Festival in Orlando, Florida; and The Versatility Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I have such optimism because of our success already as a dance organization,” says Vitacca. “We have the infrastructure to make this happen.”

So why did it take over two years for a Houston-based troupe to perform in Houston? “We wanted to get the lay of the land, and a soft launch worked better for us so that we could develop our artistic voice,” says Vitacca.

A close-up of two dancers in rehearsal shows toe men from the hips-up in black practice clothes. One man, in front, clasps his hands to his head as the second man reaches around from behind and holds his shoulder.
Jordan Hooks and Joshua Ponton. Photo by Tati Vice, courtesy Vitacca Ballet.

Vitacca believes that what she offers is unique to Houston. “We are creation-based; all the work is fresh,” she says. “There are not many limitations when a choreographer comes into the space to develop their work. Our dancers are largely invested in the creation—it’s truly a dialogue.”

Garrett Smith, who cut his teeth as a dancemaker and corps de ballet member at Houston Ballet, assumes the role of resident choreographer for Vitacca Ballet’s 2023–24 season. Smith’s earlier work Somewhat Closer, also on the LAUNCH program, is considered the company’s signature ballet. The now Barcelona-based independent choreographer has set works on Houston Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Norwegian National Ballet, Philadelphia Ballet, and more. But working with Vitacca Ballet, he says, feels “like coming home.”

“I also appreciate the artistic freedom,” says Smith. “One very motivating factor is the amount of talent Kelly has brought in. The dancers are extremely creative and confident in building movement with me. Having a home to produce ideas and art and working with dancers who already know me is a great place to be.”

The company dancers hail from all over the U.S., with one international dancer from Israel and one Houston native, Maddie Medina. “We are small, but we are mighty,” says Medina, who is a Vitacca School alum and Juilliard graduate. “We work so well together and don’t settle for anything less than great.”

While ballet is the company’s common foundation, the dancers need to be skilled in contemporary, as well. Currently, about a third of the repertory is on pointe, but Vitacca hopes to increase the number next season.

In a bright dance studio, a male and a female dancer rehearse a pas de deux together. The man, in a plié in second position, lifts his left arm up as he uses his right arm and thigh to support the weight of his partner, who leans on him backwards. She makes a sous-sus position on the diagonal, her back resting on his thigh, and she reaches her right arm around his left shoulder, extending her left arm out.
Elissa Fonseca and guest artist Khen Kurulkar. Photo by Tati Vice, courtesy Vitacca Ballet.

Vitacca describes the company’s typical rehearsal process as exploratory and intense, but fun. And she’s right—the energy in the studio pulses with Texas can-do confidence. “We desire to build strong work and enjoy the process,” she says. “It’s not always roses, but mostly we are really loving what we do.”

LAUNCH features an evening of work created and developed on Vitacca Ballet. In addition to Smith’s works, the show also includes pieces by Vitacca, Tina Kay Bohnstedt and guest choreographer Madison Hicks. The company will also headline the Red Rock Dance Festival in St. George, Utah, May 31 to June 3. Vitacca is finalizing the details on the company’s next season, which will be announced in May.

Vitacca envisions that their Houston debut show will make a bold statement. “I think of our first Houston show as a gallery,” she says. “I hope that [the audiences] can relate to the work.”