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By Nancy Wozny
Bringing charm and commitment to Houston Ballet’s corps
Judson in Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
Elise Judson understands the kind of unfussy musicality that any Mark Morris ballet demands. Petite but precise, the 24-year-old Houston Ballet corps member has an ability to accent that stands out in pieces like Morris’ Pacific. “I love how the music and movement come together. I get to work on both at the same time,” she says. “I don’t really count in a Morris ballet; I look for the nuances.”
With her delicate features and chiseled frame, Judson has a chameleon quality that has been an advantage since she joined Houston Ballet in 2007. She seems like an exquisite china doll in classical ballets, but transforms into a feisty speed demon for contemporary works. The company’s artistic director, Stanton Welch, often features her in his own pieces, like Falling. “She has such a lovely and charming stage presence,” Welch says. “She’s completely involved in what she’s dancing. She’s always picked for everything by outside choreographers. She’s one of the most used dancers in the company.”
Judson came to ballet in a typical way. Following in the footsteps of her older sister Carolyn, she started taking class when she was 5, at a studio in her hometown of Sacramento, California. Today Carolyn dances at Texas Ballet Theater and the sisters remain close. “We both love that through dance we get to tell a story,” says Judson. “This year, Texas Ballet Theater and Houston Ballet are performing Swan Lake at the same time. We’ll have lots to talk about.”
Carolyn went to Houston Ballet summer intensives, and with her encouragement, Elise followed suit. It was Elise, though, who ended up with the invitation to join Houston Ballet II. From there, in 2007 she moved quickly to apprentice to the company’s corps. Her focus in classical corps work began early, performing at the City Ballet of San Diego’s summer intensive. “I was 14 when I stepped out as the very first dancer in ‘Kingdom of the Shades,’ ” says Judson, who got through all 38 arabesques without a wobble. “ ‘Shades’ is the ultimate corps experience,” she says. “You have to be perfect, exact and totally focused.”
For Judson, the corps is not a holding pattern. “I don’t actually think of myself as a corps dancer,” she says. “I think of myself as my own dancer.” However, she understands that the corps often requires blending in. “Sometimes I get to shine on my own; other times I get to shine as a part of a group,” she says. “I try to be the best corps de ballet dancer that I can be, yet still show my own artistry.”
Technically and artistically, she’s always working to improve. Her ideal ballet feet and hyperextended legs make for gorgeous lines, but create a challenge for her turning. “There will be days where I don’t actually do an entire turning combination in center,” she admits. “I will work on each turn on my own, in the corner, to try to perfect every nuance of it.”
Among Judson’s favorite partners is her fiancé, Houston Ballet corps member Rhodes Elliott, whom she dated for five years before he proposed. They plan a Texas Hill Country wedding in July, with Judson and her mom making all the appetizers for the crowd. When she’s not in the studio, she likes to cook. “I love event planning; that’s what I hope to do when I stop dancing,” she says.
This past winter, the couple dazzled Nutcracker audiences in the Arabian pas de deux. “Elise is always thinking about how to make things work better,” says Elliott. “She’s so committed to the emotional tone of any dance, which gives me something to feed off of onstage.”
Judson looks forward to the company’s mixed bill of contemporary classics, dancing in Swan Lake in June and the world premiere of a new work by Morris next season. Clearly, she’s found a home to grow in. “I feel so lucky to have been given special roles, but I want them to keep coming,” she says. “I’m confident that they will.”