Giving Back, Reaching Forward

Houston Ballet dancers raise funds for their community through a self-produced performance project.

REACH
Oliver Halkowich (back) rehearses corps member Shahar Dori. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy REACH.

One day during spring break of this year, Houston Ballet principal Connor Walsh coached corps member Shu Kinouchi on the intricate steps of his newest work. Soloist Allison Miller rushed in with a sleek handmade zippered unitard. Lighting designer Lisa Pinkham popped in to take notes, as did C.C. Conner, the former managing director of Houston Ballet. This wasn’t for a Houston Ballet event but for REACH, a collective of entrepreneurial dancers who give back to their community by producing a show during their layoff time.

REACH came into being when the company’s annual choreographic workshop disappeared due to a jam-packed touring schedule two years ago. HB artistic director Stanton Welch encouraged principal Melody Mennite to take on a choreography project to replace it. “He really wants to nurture in-house choreographers,” she explains. Mennite, the force behind REACH, wrangled principal Walsh and soloist Oliver Halkowich to join the project as co-directors.

REACH has a dual purpose: to put on a show where every participant learns about an aspect of production they are interested in—be it marketing, fundraising, choreography or costume design—and to raise money for one of Houston Ballet’s outreach programs. “When we had our first conversations about REACH in October of 2014, it was about the chance to choreograph. The idea of raising funds developed later and was inspired by Nederlands Dans Theater’s Switch,” says Mennite.

Early on, the REACH team went to executive director Jim Nelson and Welch to see how the dancers could use Houston Ballet as a resource. The company provided rehearsal space and its Dance Lab black-box theater free of charge. Pinkham and photographer Amitava Sarkar also donated their services to the project.

Instead of trying to put on a show during their busiest time, REACH went to work during a vacation. Although the project was two years in the planning, all the works were created, rehearsed and performed within a two-week time frame. Everyone had at least two jobs. “Next time, I’ll just handle costumes,” admits Miller, who danced in two of the works in addition to being the costume designer. Walsh, wearing a headset, chimed in, “I have so much respect for the people backstage now.” Mennite adds, “Because we were rehearsing nonstop, we did not get out of shape during our time off, either.”

As they considered what to do with the proceeds, they realized there were outreach programs under their own roof that could use extra funding. “With a ballet dancer’s schedule it’s really hard to volunteer anywhere,” says Mennite. “We fell in love with  X³: Explore, Extend, Excel!,” a Houston Ballet program that brings movement and music classes to elementary schools for free.

“We are usually at the receiving end of philanthropy,” says Walsh. “This gave us a chance to learn about raising funds.” REACH raised $11,200 in net proceeds for X³. Discussions are already underway for next year’s REACH, which will take place during the company’s summer break.

“After it was over, it felt surreal. The audience, the choreography and the community support was amazing,” says Mennite. “We had accomplished something so important: We created a structure where dancers could do what they love and make a difference in their own field.” 

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