Houston Press | October 24, 2022
Some people have been elevated to the position of local royalty, legends that locals brag about when they get a chance. Lauren Anderson is one of those legends, the first Black ballerina in Houston Ballet history and one of the few in the country.
Anderson is the overcomer of odds and breaker of barriers, who trail-blazed a path to become an inspiration to anyone who attempts the improbable, the seemingly impossible, and specifically an inspiration for Black girls and women. Anderson’s story is now being told over at Stages in Plumshuga: The Rise of Lauren Anderson, written by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton.
“So you want to know about me?” asks an unassuming DeQuina Moore as Anderson, who begins recounting her story, starting in the 1970s. Then, it was a five-year-old Anderson at her first ballet class – the lone Black student, clad in a black dress surrounded by pink lycra-ed classmates – already attempting to make her body “be the right kind of ballerina.” Though admittedly “bewitched” by ballet, it wasn’t until seeing the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Firebird (the company’s iconic 1982 John Taras-choreographed take on Stravinsky, transplanted from Russia to a Caribbean jungle) that Anderson could see her future in the dance form.
If you read the first paragraph, you know where this journey takes Anderson: All the way to principal at the Houston Ballet, the first Black woman to be promoted to principal at the company and one of the very first Black women to be promoted to principal at any major American company. But in between is life, Anderson’s life, and it’s not nearly as sweet as the Sugar Plum Fairy role she danced.
In her own words, as relayed to Mouton, we learn about Anderson’s broken home and early exposure to alcohol (“the first fracture”). We hear of the “impossible expectations” her father instilled in her, and of the “second fracture,” the time when then-artistic director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson, suggested to Anderson’s parents that maybe she was better suited to musical theater.
Ballet becomes a double-edged sword in Anderson’s world, successes seeming to open, or deepen, wounds. On playing her first lead role in a production of Alice in Wonderland, Anderson sees herself as “too giant a body to enter, too black a body to blend.” Even as successes continue to pile up, doubt never ceases; in fact, as she says, “all of it came to a head eight hours a day in front of a mirror.” Anderson found respite in alcohol and drugs, and it’s this battle – between being “numb and perfect” or “broken and flawed” – that’s at the center of Plumshuga’s story.
Plumshuga is not a one-woman show. It would be a disservice to every other great performer who steps on stage to even imply that it is. But Moore carries this production. It’s her command, her ability to expertly execute the poetic musicality of Mouton’s well-crafted words – while also infusing them with vulnerability, humor, doubt, cheekiness – that make Moore the perfect beacon for the “Plumshuga lighthouse.”
Supporting Moore as Anderson are Kalen Wright, as Young Lauren, and Kellen Hornbuckle, as Dancer Lauren. Wright is wide-eyed exuberance, a perfect match for Moore’s own energy. Hornbuckle, a demi soloist at Houston Ballet, is subdued by comparison, a ballerina trying to maintain perfection within an increasingly broken music box. We only see glimpses of the spirit Moore brings to the role – like during the push and pull with Eric Best’s Carlos, and their eventual tangy, tango-like pas de deux – but man, can she dance. From the distressed Sleeping Beauty pas de deux, which morphs into something else entirely, to a picture of control and beautiful lines dancing Cleopatra, Hornbuckle holds her own when she’s on her toes.
Ensemble member Rafael Tillery played the role of Love, transforming into its many forms effortlessly. One of the most powerful moments in the whole production sees Moore cowering on a chaise lounge, clutching a bouquet of flowers and pillow to her chest. Tillery, as one iteration of Love (an abusive Love) rips those flowers from her hand. It’s a simple, non-explicit reference to the abuse she describes that is incredibly effective. . .