HOUSTON (AP) — As her spending habits, wardrobe choices and overall behavior became fodder for the media and the public, the young princess became the object of gossip, backbiting and derision that ultimately led to her gruesome downfall.
Sex, lies, but no videotape for Marie Antoinette, the legendary French queen seen by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch as an 18th-century version of modern-day celebrities stalked by paparazzi and splashed across supermarket tabloids.
"I thought it was an interesting parallel," he said of the title character in his new ballet "Marie," which holds its world premiere this week in Houston. "She died for the sins of France and all the kings and queens that had gone before her. It wasn't necessarily for her. She was a victim."
While arts companies around the country are cutting productions, laying off staff and even closing, Houston Ballet is readying the three-act story ballet about the life and death of the woman at the center of the French Revolution.
The production already was on the drawing board and contracts signed before the money crunch hit nationwide, prompting companies like the Sacramento Ballet to cancel the rest of its season, the New York City Ballet to shorten its summer season and the Miami City Ballet to eliminate its live orchestra and trim its dancer roster.
But C.C. Conner, Houston Ballet's managing director, said the nation's fourth-largest ballet routinely provides for new productions in its annual budget.
"We're not one of the companies that only does it if we can go raise specific money for a specific ballet," he said. "It's philosophical for us to know we're going to do new productions on an ongoing basis."
He also noted Houston Ballet, with 54 professional dancers, a $20 million budget this year and a $60 million endowment, has a tradition of staging big full-length ballets with original stories.
"Marie" could cost $1 million, Welch said.
The production is scheduled for six performances beginning Feb. 26 at Houston's Wortham Theater. Then the cast hits the road for New Orleans where "Marie" on March 27 was to be the first dance performance at the newly renovated Mahalia Jackson Theatre.
Welch acknowledges the subject matter isn't without risk, but sees ballet often falling into a habit of marketing the easy sell of "anything Walt Disney did."
"But we're not a kid's art form," the choreographer said. "We deal with entirely adult subjects, although every now and again we might have a child-oriented thing.
"This lends itself to subject matter and scenes that suddenly take ballet out of this pristine little music-box world and throw it into the world of opera and theater and paintings and show it as really a very realistic way of showing raw, rough, adult emotions."
And aware of the economic environment, Welch historically sees art blooming amid religious, governmental or financial impediments.
"It flourishes and finds its way around that," he said. "The greatest art is created around things."
Welch said one of the challenges for him was to confront preconceived notions of Marie Antoinette.
"There's going to be half of the audience that wants to see us say: 'Let them eat cake,'" he said, referring to the iconic phrase attributed to her but which historians agree she never said.
"When you deal with a subject, or when you pick a piece of music everyone's heard a million times, they have very specific emotions they want to see portrayed," he said. Antoinette "carries a lot of that with her."
Instead, Welch focuses on the personal Antoinette, plucked as a young teenager from her Austrian family, where she was the youngest girl and 15th among 16 children, and into an arranged marriage that would make her the queen of France by the time she was 20.
"Taken from Austria, she was undressed and redressed on the border," he said of the first act. "What an object! Such child abuse!"
In the second act, at Versailles, she was saddled with the baggage of gossip and hostility from an unforgiving royal court and the public, leading to her trial and ultimate demise — a trip to the guillotine in the climactic third act.
Not that Antoinette was without blame, he conceded.
"She did some questionable things," Welch said. "But she was raised in a way that didn't allow her or give her the ability to look at those situations to guide her or her husband."
Melody Herrera, Houston Ballet's 25-year-old principal dancer, has the lead role, playing Marie beginning at age 13 when she learns she's being sent to France until she is executed at age 38.
"To see things like ballets and operas and art can be an enriching experience and certainly Marie Antoinette is a large figure in history," she said. "It's a very emotional story. It's a very complicated story."
Being a new work can be an advantage, she said, "as far as making things your own, making things fresh, making it unique."
"But it's also a little bit more pressure because no one's ever seen it."
At the guillotine, Marie "dies with her dignity, that she served her purposes and stayed strong," Herrera said. "I really like that part."
The music of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, politically persecuted by Stalin, provides the score arranged by Ermanno Florio.
"The melodies are very beautiful, but there's always this harmonic undercurrent of tension and stress," Florio said. "And so the music fits very well."
Almost two years in the making, London-based designer Kandis Cook created the sets and more than 150 costumes ranging from tattered garments for rowdy Parisian revolutionaries to Antoinette's royal wedding gown.
"It's very exciting," she said. "It's an honor to be doing pieces of this scale. It's very rarely done."
Welch believes tears will flow from an audience that by the end of the ballet sympathizes with Marie and her husband, Louis XVI, who also went to the guillotine.
"The vulnerability of dying like that and feeling so hated by so many people really resonates, I think," he said. "It's very human to not want to be the outcast, to want to belong.
"When they died, they were made to feel completely the opposite of that. Even if you don't like them, you've connected with them. There's something so interesting about that. The idea of waiting for your death at that level is profoundly affecting."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.