Victoria Vittum brings vision, passion, expertise and dedication to Ballet Center of Houston (BCH) and Houston Repertoire Ballet, both of which she founded. The Repertoire now now celebrates its 20th Year with a production of the beloved holiday classic, The Nutcracker, December 4-6.
HFM: When did you discover you had a passion for dance, ballet in particular?
VV: When I was about 13. I couldn’t get enough of dance. I spent every day at the studio. It was at a summer intensive in Memphis that I studied with Roni Mahler (former ABT dancer), and the passion was sealed. She was so inspiring that I just knew I had to have a career in dance.
HFM: At what point did the passion for dance finetune to a passion for choreography and for teaching?
VV: When I was in college I had an awesome ballet teacher, Julio de Bittencourt. He was also such a musical choreographer. He really guided me. While I was in college I was given many opportunities, not only with the university ballet company, but also choreographing for several operas, a musical, and a regional ballet company. After I graduated, I moved to Houston where I joined City Ballet of Houston as a dancer, but I also was allowed to choreograph. Many of my ballets on City Ballet were performed at the regional ballet festivals, and that really got me started as a choreographer. In the 1980’s I choreographed for many many companies all over the country. In those years I enjoyed teaching, but choreography was my passion.
HFM: What obstacles did you face early in your career, or as a young dancer, and how did you surmount them?
VV: I never had the ideal ballet body, but I just couldn’t give it up. I had to figure it out and find my way.
HFM: You founded the Ballet Center of Houston (BCH) in 1994. What inspired you?
VV: I left Houston in 1992 to take a job as Resident Choreographer for Gwinnett Ballet Theatre in Atlanta. Artistically it was a wonderful job, but I was not happy living in Atlanta, so after 2 years I started thinking about what to do next. I was offered a job as ballet mistress with Tulsa but opted not to take it because I wanted something more stable. At the time many of my friends were losing their jobs every time the artistic director changed. I talked to Gilbert Rome, and he suggested I consider coming back to Houston to start a school, and we could start a student performing group after I got the school going. In April of 1994 Gilbert called me and told me he had found a perfect location for the school, so I flew back to Houston, signed the papers, and BCH was started in June.
HFM: And two years later you co-founded Houston Repertoire Ballet with Gilbert.
VV: Gilbert had a ballet school in Champion Forest, and BCH was located in Copperfield. The 2 locations were close enough that we could work together in starting HRB. In the beginning we chose the very best dancers from the 2 locations to form HRB. We rehearsed 2 days per week at each location and then alternated the location of rehearsals on Saturdays. We started HRB first to give our talented students the performing experience necessary to train a dancer and, second, to educate the public and introduce the suburbs to the beauty of classical ballet. Our mission is also to produce quality performances at an affordable price so that everyone can experience the joy with us.
HFM: In August you posted to Facebook that your Nutcracker dancers were working not only on choreography but also on “learning teamwork, attention to detail, technique, persistence, focus, and building stamina.” How does ballet help build these qualities in a person?
VV: Studying ballet seriously takes a lot of time, discipline, determination, patience and passion. Our students learn great work ethics. Whether they go on to a professional career or not, I don’t think anything else prepares teens more than ballet does for whatever they decide to do. Understanding how to stick with something, do a good job, have pride in oneself, work well with others, and never complain are qualities every employer would cherish.
HFM: You are a nationally recognized teacher and choreographer. Which role do you enjoy more? Why?
VV: About the time I moved back to Houston I was invited to teach at Houston Ballet. Ben Stevenson was such an inspiring teacher, and it was during those years that I think I really found myself as a teacher. Now I enjoy teaching more than choreography, unless I get really inspired by something or someone. I think my continued relationship with Houston Ballet also helps to keep me fresh and bring inspiration to my students at BCH and HRB.
HFM: Have you ever considered another profession?
VV: No. I couldn’t do anything else and would not ever want to do anything else. When I am too old to teach, I want to work in the costume department at Houston Ballet or something like that.
HFM: How do parents know when to push their child over a temporary hump in his or her ballet training and/or when it may be time to stop the training and allow the child to pursue something else?
VV: When they no longer enjoy it and stop trying. Parents should encourage but not push their children. It is our job to push them. Sometimes young children need a little push, but by the time they are 12-14 it should be up to the students. Pushy parents and artists don’t really go together very well.
HFM: Can you tell us some special details about this year’s production of “The Nutcracker?”
VV: Absolutely. This is HRB’s 20th Anniversary. It’s quite a milestone. This year our Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier are 2 former students that were our very first Snow Pas de deux couple. They have not danced together in about 15 years. Elizabeth Keller is currently a principal dancer with Ballet Idaho, and Jared Matthews is a principal dancer with Houston Ballet. This is going to be so very special to me. We also have former students Joseph Modlin (Drosselmeyer) and Jonathan Vecseri (Cavalier on Friday and Dew Drop partner) returning to perform with us. Other guests will include Andrew Taft (principal with Ballet Idaho) as Snow King, as well as many HRB alumni making appearances in the party scene throughout the weekend.
HFM: Why is The Nutcracker such an enduring ballet, one that speaks to even the most outlying of ballet enthusiasts?
VV: Because it is such a magical story, simple to understand, and is a holiday tradition for so many.
HFM: What do you think of Houston’s arts scene?
VV: Houston has a very vibrant arts scene. We are very lucky to live in a city that supports the arts so generously. Many of the arts organization work together and help to inspire each other. I can’t tell you how inspired our dancers are when they go to see Houston Ballet or have a dancer from the company come teach their class.
HFM: If painting is poetry in color, and poetry is a spoken painting, what is dance?
VV: Dance is poetry in motion.