When I accepted Houston Repertoire Ballet’s recent invitation to review this year’s production of Tchaikovsky’s classic, “The Nutcracker,” I had good reason to expect a winner. Having attended the company’s brilliant Spring Season opener earlier this year, I was already aware of its exceptional work with young dancers ranging up to the age of seventeen. But nothing could have prepared me for the breathtaking visual opulence of what I was about to see on the stage of Tomball High School.
As an added treat, my guest and I were invited (by HRB’s gracious publicist, Mary-Lynne Balczon) to have a backstage tour before the program began. There, one could immediately sense the youthful energy and enthusiasm of the young dancers who were about to capture the holiday hearts of their audience. We were introduced to gifted Ballet Mistress, Amy Beatty, and met several of the talented parent-seamstresses who had designed the exquisite period costumes for this “Nutcracker.” We were also privileged to meet Gilbert Rome, one of the company’s Artistic Directors, fully costumed and ready for his role as Herr Drosselmeier. (Rome’s co-Director, Victoria Vittum, was Choreographer for this superb production).
Act I opens in the classical beauty of the grand parlor of Dr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum (Ed Hoffart and Leeyan Neeley. Miss Neeley is the company’s Resident Choreographer). The house is brimming with holiday guests surrounding the gorgeous Christmas tree at the Stahlbaum’s Christmas party. The girls and boys at the party dance and play with a naturalness that is most engaging. The richly decorated tree, with its magical powers of expansion, could well have been in Rockefeller Center. Costumes, sets, and lighting were all so elegantly designed that the visual impact was like that of the most exquisite antique Christmas card. The exceptional costume designs moved as smoothly as the dancers and would have easily exceeded expectations in any professional production of this ballet. The dazzling choreography encompassed frolicking children, gay receiving line, joyful polkas, stately minuets and graceful movement on every hand. An endless air of spontaneity, of the kind only skilled dancers can create, enhanced the precision of the choreography. Fine examples of this were the dances of the Harlequin Dolls (Christina Kinchen, Lindsey Lewis) and the Soldier Dolls (Kristin Araas, Katie Hoffart). Mr. Rome gives us a Drosselmeier full of magic and mystery. Young Clara Stahlbaum (Sydney Miller) brings joyful grace to her dance with the nutcracker toy, only to be interrupted by her mischievous brother, Fritz, nicely played by young Richard Taylor. The Mouse Queen (Kelli Garner) gracefully led a troupe of the most energetic and adorably costumed mice in the exciting battle with the toy soldiers. A radiantly beautiful Heather Brand and handsome Austin Kilgore dance skillfully while presiding as Snow Queen and King. The “snowflakes” that surround them dance divinely even during an onstage snowstorm that may have been the best since the closing scene of Bing Crosby’s ever-popular film, “White Christmas.”
During intermission many of us had the opportunity to visit with famed 20-year veteran of the Houston Ballet, Janie Parker. Miss Parker, now retired, was in the lobby signing copies of her new memoir of life in the ballet, “Generous Hearts and Gentle Spirits.”
The delights in Act II’s beautiful Candyland were countless. Kristin Araas (as the Dew Drop Fairy), and a cast of graceful Flowers start us on the lovely journey. Their dramatic frozen tableaus set the stage for the entrance of the two visiting professional dancers who brought the production to an even higher level: Lisa Alfieri-Ballo as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Damian Schwiethale as her Cavalier. Their dazzling pairing was a wonderful thing to behold for both the audience and the young performers in the cast.
A cast of Angels extends the graceful energy while a cast of Bakers enters to offer every sweet confection. The flamenco flavored Spanish Dance offered by Allison Moss, Christi Timm, and David Armendariz was sharp, clean, and dramatic. Mr. Armendariz, recently spotlighted in the company’s newsletter, “Footnotes,” shows great promise and is now in his senior year at the University of Houston. Rachel Cohen, Samantha Elliston, and Arrianna Aquilar were the merry and magical Chinese Dancers. A superb corps of Mirliton Candy dancers included Maurielle Balczon, Lauren Bringle, Vicki Buchanan, Rachel Dockray, Coralie Taylor, and Katie Hoffart. Erin Goodman, Austin Kilgore and Charles Syndor gave a haunting performance of the exotic Arabian Dance. The spirited dance of the Russian Bon Bons was well done by Kelli Garner, Heather Brand and Emily Tune. A large cast of Candy Canes did a remarkable and intricate dance resembling a May Pole celebration. An exquisite Waltz of the Flowers was truly a dream and featured Armendariz as escort for the Dew Drop Fairy. Both he and Mr. Kilgore deserve credit as excellent examples of the athleticism not always associated with dance for men in our football culture.
The final Pas de Duex of the guest artists was the icing on the cake of this delicious production. Even if this gifted cast of youngsters never goes on to such professional heights, there had been an exchange of gifts for the holidays. For the young cast there was the gift of artistic experiences that will enrich them throughout their lives. For the audience there was a visual experience of such elegance and joy it will never be forgotten. And for HRB, its parents, and volunteers, there must be immense pride in the incredible success their efforts have made possible.
(The Courier 12.15.02)