OREGON BALLET THEATRE

 

Photo: Michael Linsmeier.
Photo by Joni Kabana.

 

STEVEN HOUSER

Steven Houser

WELL-KNIT. HOMESPUN DANDY. NICELY SUITED.

BY LINDA BESANT, April 2007

What got you started studying ballet?

I’ve been doing ballet since I was six, but before that I did pre-dance, run-around-with-a-scarf kind of stuff with Kasandra Gruener (who now directs OBT’s education/outreach programs). I had a lot of energy as a little kid, hyper-active running around, and my parents signed me up. I went to Providence Montessori School, and it was an extra offering. My favorite dance we did was “Spider and the Fly.” It was so much fun. I started ballet because I was really into acting, and I realized that actors need to be able to dance and sing, and it’s good exercise, and it’s fun to do. My parents own and run Hawthorne Auto Clinic, so it was something I could do while they were working.

How did you know you were really into acting when you were only six?

I don’t remember how I got into it, but I really like being on stage. I did most of my acting through Northwest Children’s Theater. I loved all of it, drama, comedy, musicals. There’s a good variety of classes there—acting technique, acting before the camera, play labs. The one type of play I never got to do, because you had to be older to do them, was the Shakespeare plays. By the time I was older I was more involved in dance and never had time to do the Shakespeare labs. I’ve always loved Shakespeare, I go down to Ashland as often as I can. I did Winnie the Pooh: A Christmas Tale with Northwest Children’s Theater and was paid $25. I had to give half to my parents for driving me to rehearsal. Other shows I did with NWCT—Ramona of Klickitat Street, Peter Pan—I had to split the money with my parents, too. The one professional show I did outside NWCT was The Sound of Music with the Musical Theater Company when I was about 12. I was Kurt. I had a really good time. I can’t sing anymore, but back before puberty I could.

Do you find that your acting experience serves your dancing?

What it’s helped me with most is being able to relax on stage. I feel so at home on stage because I’m used to being out there. Getting lots of stage experience really taught me to be a performer. I learned to keep in mind that there’s an audience out there, and they are the reason I’m here. And vice versa, I’m the reason they’re here. It’s a relationship. Whenever we do a story ballet, I can think about how I will show the story, facially and with body language. Acting isn’t just reciting words, it’s how you’re moving your body, how you’re using your hands. I’ll ask, how can I tend to make this happen with my body, make it still be ballet and read to the audience. By high school, you were dancing at Portland Metro Performing Arts and Portland Community Ballet, and acting with Northwest Children’s Theater.

What made you decide to seriously pursue a career as a dancer?

I did acting and ballet simultaneously for years. I was stretched pretty thin, because boys are in high demand for ballet, always. I was dancing at two different studios, doing a ton of dancing, and still doing the acting thing on the weekend. I was trying to balance it all. One of my teachers said, “Have you thought about doing a summer ballet program?” I said, “I’m not good enough for that,” but I got accepted to the San Francisco Ballet School summer program. Getting accepted was a huge shock to me. I thought, “Wow, maybe this is something I can do.” I decided to focus towards a ballet career. That’s when I moved to the Beaverton Arts and Communications Magnet Academy for high school. Going to San Francisco was the best summer of my life up until then. Before going to San Francisco, I hadn’t realized how good a dancer could be. I’d seen Nureyev and Baryshnikov on video, but suddenly I was seeing a bigger ballet world actually going on in America. I would go to the studio early so I could watch company class. It was an eye opener to see male dancers be that good and that diverse—people who were short and quick, people who were tall and more lyrical. Taking class with so many other boys who were my age was something new for me too, people I could compete with in a friendly way. I could see where ballet training was heading, I could see an end result in mind. Then, your senior year in high school you came to study at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre . . . I figured that if I wanted to be a professional dancer, I needed to spend time at a professional school, to get an idea of what the atmosphere was like at a professional company, because that was my goal. Also I felt that I should probably go somewhere with connections that would give me a more concrete chance of getting a job. I got in to the University of Utah and the North Carolina School of the Arts, so I had a backup plan, but this was what I wanted to do. Then I was offered an apprenticeship at OBT, and then a contract to be in the company.

For OBT’s All Premieres program in March, you were in all three ballets. What was that like?

For me personally, just to know that I was able to get through three ballets in one show, two days in a row—I was proud of myself for that. I’ve really been enjoying partnering with Anne Mueller. She’s great to work with. It’s nice to partner the same person enough that you grow to understand each other. You get so you can almost guess where the other person is going to go next, so you can be there and be ready. Everybody dances differently. Everybody has a different ideas of who is in charge when, when you’re partnering. It’s nice to understand what the other person is thinking about. Anne has partnered with so many people that she’s been able to offer me a lot of insight into how to help the girl be on her leg more, things like that.

What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?

I do my laundry; I have my cat. When the weather is warm I love going downtown and just walking around, especially the waterfront and the Rose Garden. I love people watching, the everyday dramas at Pioneer Courthouse Square, all that fun stuff. I love going out to eat, everything from cheap, greasy food at the Roxy to nice Italian food at Mama Mia’s. And I love movies—classic movies like Gone with the Wind, and recent movies like Babel, The Queen, Pan’s Labyrinth. Mel Brooks movies are hilarious. I like the Christopher Guest comedies. I like every genre of movie. I can appreciate the work that goes into them. I think every movie has some form of entertainment value. I like being able to escape.

What about your line of dance clothes?

You know, there aren’t a lot of fun, colorful guys’ dance clothes out there. I was tired of having to wear black, so I got a pattern for shorts and I went to Mill Ends and got some fabric and I made a pair. Brennan Boyer, who also dances here, he and I masterminded making several pairs and offering them to other dancers. Then Mia Leimkuhler wanted a leotard, so we started making leotards too. Brennan and Mia can do the cutting, but I’m the only one who knows how to use a sewing machine. I’ve always known how to sew. At Montessori School, you learn how to sew buttons by hand when you’re in kindergarten. My parents always made our Halloween costumes, so I picked up learning to use a sewing machine making Halloween costumes. Sewing is an important skill to have, otherwise you end up trying to staple your elastics onto your ballet shoes, or stick them on with jet glue. How did you start knitting? In seventh and eighth grade, we were all required to take home ec class at Montessori School. Instead of having a run-a-thon, we had a knit-a-thon, and we were sponsored by the row. I don’t remember how many rows I knitted or how much I raised, but I made a lime-green scarf and gave it to my sister.

Is there something you’d like to tell people about OBT that they might not realize?

I’d give a shout out to Lisa Kipp, our ballet master. She has a huge job, staging ballets, rehearsing people, teaching class. The really hard part about her job—she has to know both sides of the male and female corps parts, and the principle parts, and be able to rehearse them and sit there and watch, and see what the principles do, and the corps people going this way on this side, and the other people going that way on that side, and take it all in and give effective notes afterwards. If there’s someone here choreographing a ballet, she has to sit and take notes. If the choreographer changes his or her mind, Lisa has to keep track of the changes. Sometimes they’ll go back to the original idea. Lisa has to have enough of an understanding of everyone’s part to be able to know when it’s wrong, and how to fix it. This is what I’d like to do after I retire from dancing.

And something about ballet in general that people might not realize?

For most dancers, ballet isn’t so much a job as a way of life. Even when I’m not at work I’m going over choreography or stretching or going to the gym. Sometimes I’m not able to go out with my non-dancer friends so I can get enough rest for the next day. I always have my iPod with me, listening to the music of the ballets that are coming up. I listened to Ash, which was in our last program, every morning on my walk to work, and counted it. I’m sure people who saw me on the street thought I was crazy. But it’s all part of a dancer’s life. OBT’s audiences seem happy that your hometown ballet company is such a good fit . . . Some days I wake up and I can’t believe that I get to be part of something so amazing as OBT right now—the repertoire we get to dance is incredible; the company is great to work with. I feel so optimistic when I’m here. I’m excited that we get to dance a William Forsythe ballet next year; I’m a huge Balanchine fan. Christopher is great to work for. You can tell that he’s really thought about ballet technique, why things work the way they work. He’s done so much, so quickly, with this company. Everyone just seems to be getting better and better. I think that’s really a testament to the work ethic here. Everyone wants to make this company the very best so everyone is giving 110% every single day and every single rehearsal. I’m having a lovely time here.

Who's Your Dancer?

OBT / National Endowment for the Arts Oregon Arts Commission Regional Arts & Culture Council Work for Art Portland Monthly Oregon Community Foundation Jerome Robbins Foundation
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