HOUSTON — When Lauren Anderson was promoted to principal dancer at Houston Ballet in 1990, she made history as one of the first Black women to be a principal at a major American ballet company.
“My goal was just to get in the company,” Anderson, 57, said in a recent interview. “My dream was to be a soloist. I didn’t expect to go past soloist.”
But she did, dancing the lead in ballets such as “Cleopatra” and collecting accolades. Reviewing “Cleopatra” in 2000, critic Clive Barnes called her “the superb, stunning Lauren Anderson” and “an authentic star.” (The snake headband she wore is in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.) Now, Anderson has another kind of starring role: as the subject of a new show, “Plumshuga: The Rise of Lauren Anderson,” which opened Thursday night at the Stages theater here and runs through Nov. 13.
Written by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, the first Black poet laureate of Houston, “Plumshuga” — the title riffs on one of her signature roles, the Sugarplum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” — features performers from the Ensemble Theater, Houston Ballet and Houston Ballet Academy. The show, which charts Anderson’s rise and career in ballet, also examines her personal life, including experiences of abuse and her struggles with alcoholism.
“In approaching this work, I considered three paths,” Mouton said in an interview. “Who is she as an artist, who is she as a woman and who is she as an addict? And how do those things give us a more whole and complete understanding of Lauren Anderson — the person?”
Anderson, whose repertory included works by George Balanchine and Kenneth MacMillan, was a pioneer in a field that still struggles with diversity. One of the few Black women to follow her as a principal dancer in a major company, Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theatre has credited her as an inspiration. Copeland’s stardom is a welcome sign, Anderson believes, of needed change in the industry.
“I think when it comes to changing things that need to be changed, the young people got it,” she said.
After Anderson, a Houston native, retired from dancing in 2006 (and after revelations about her addiction became public, in 2009, when she was pulled over in Houston for speeding), she set out on a new professional path, though one in which dance remains central: She works as the associate director of the Houston Ballet’s education and community engagement program, a role that allows her to cultivate the next generations of dancers.
In a recent conversation at Houston Ballet, Anderson spoke about “Plumshuga,” being a ballet pioneer and being frank about addiction. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Take me back to 1990. What was your initial reaction to your promotion?
A: So let’s get this right. In 1990, I didn’t know my promotion was historic. I thought my promotion was that the miracle happened. I didn’t think I’d be at the top of the company. I was thinking that’s probably impossible. And lo and behold, it happened. I knew I was the first Black person to be a principal dancer. But I wasn’t thinking history making; I was just thinking, “I got to the mountaintop.” Now I know. And throughout my career, I’ve understood the gravity of it.
Q: You said in an interview, “My blackness never bothered me, it bothered other people.” How did Houston react?A: I’ve been here my whole life, for 57 years. The city of Houston has seen my face on the stage since 1972, because I was in Houston Ballet’s first Nutcracker. However, in 1983, when I did my first Sugarplum Fairy, when I turned to face the audience, they let out this huge gasp, because they just hadn’t seen this. And then, at the end of the show, we got a standing ovation. From that moment on, the city of Houston has had their arms open, and they have given me a giant hug.
The staff had to deal with some things, though. Whenever there’s hate mail or anything of that kind, the FBI opens a file, so I know Houston Ballet’s FBI file on me has to be a mile high.
Q: You’ve been recognized as a groundbreaking dancer with regard to race, but also challenging norms of visibility for dark-skinned Black women in the arts. How did you grapple with racism and colorism in the industry?A: It wasn’t an issue here at the Houston Ballet; it was an issue in other places. Because we’ve had every color brown here. But there has definitely been a long-standing issue. Beige ballerinas are allowed to be more things than dark-skinned ballerinas. There’s definitely more beige ballerinas that are at the top of their company than there are those who are dark-skinned.
I see the way little girls look at me, and I’ll never forget the way the little brown girls look at me. It’s with that look of “I could be her.”
Q: How did you arrive at the decision to allow someone else to tell your life story onstage?A: Deborah Mouton is someone that I absolutely respect, so when she came to me and said that she’d like to write a piece about my life, I was like, “Are you sure?”
Q: What was the process?A: You could just really piece the pieces together, but she said, “No, I want it in your words.” So we did three years of interviews.
She took my words and made them sound like cursive. She makes me sound so good. So much so that when I read it, and I hear it, some of it hurts. I get to relive and reflect and have all the feels. That’s how in my words it is.
Deborah wrote it, and I changed things like the floor wasn’t wood, it was linoleum; or the wall wasn’t green, it was purple. We did a drive-through of some of the places we talked about around Houston.
Q: What were some of those places?A: We went to where Houston Ballet was when I first walked through the doors in 1972; it’s now a drive-thru Starbucks. We drove by Lamar High School. We went to the house I was born in. We went by my dad’s house.
Q: You’ve been candid about your struggles with addiction. Did you feel any hesitation about that period of your life being on display in this manner?A: If I was going to tell my story, how could I leave that out? It was awesome in the sense that I was full, and I got to empty myself to Deborah after a certain amount of trust. One day, I emptied so well, I stopped seeing my therapist. And I was scared. But when I talked to my therapist about that decision, she said, “We’re supposed to get divorced honey. It’s OK.”
Q: Are there any aspects of the performance that might surprise the audience?A: Everything. Some people will know these sides, but nobody knows what I was thinking or what I was feeling. I didn’t let people know what I really thought and really felt when I walked into my first dance studio. It’s the feels all the way through.
Q: You’ve been cited as an inspiration by Misty Copeland, your fellow Houstonian Solange Knowles and other Black artists. Do you feel a sense of surprise or pride for inspiring so many Black women?A: I’m absolutely full anytime anyone says that Lauren Anderson inspired them. But I’m just me, I’m just Lauren Anderson from the 3rd Ward in Houston.
I remember speaking with Tina Knowles years ago at an event and she told me that she brought her daughters to see me perform. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the Solange post [crediting Anderson as an inspiration]. The last time I saw Solange, who went to school with my stepdaughter, she was a kid!
Q: How has ballet changed since you retired, and will those changes improve conditions for dancers from marginalized communities?A: Young people are louder than we were. Oh, this generation feels their feels, honey, and they let you know how they feel! And I love that.
Q: What keeps you in Houston?A: My roots are deep. The Houston Ballet, my family’s here. My parents are here and are getting older, and I want to be with them as much as possible.
Q: After the performance wraps, how do you intend to continue sharing your own story?A: The thing about being in recovery is that you recover by giving it away. You keep your sobriety by giving it back, just like dance. How do I keep performing? How do I keep ballet? By sharing it with the next generation.