[ NOTE: All included Opening Night photos by Amitava Sarkar.]
From a dance company as renowned as the Houston Ballet, one could expect no less than a splendid NUTCRACKER for the Christmas season. I have seen numerous productions of this cherished holiday treat and reviewed several, but this current edition will linger in memory as the gold standard of all Nutcrackers. No wonder that choreographer Ben Stevenson’s production has been seen by over a million people since its premier 24 years ago. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at from beginning to end, the dancing is sublime, and the Tchaikovsky music has never sounded better than with the superb Houston Ballet Orchestra. A half dozen conductors will alternate in leading that orchestra, and with a full month of performances extending through December 27th, audiences will have the opportunity to see a wide variety of the ballet company’s finest dancers as they share opportunities to perform the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Nutcracker Prince, the Snow Queen, Dr. Drosselmeyer, and, of course, Clara.
The second-night performance I attended featured conductor, Ermanno Florio, with the joi de vivreand lighter-than-air grace of Elise Judson as young Clara, the classic elegance of Jessica Collado as the Snow Queen, the gliding mystery and magic of Simon Ball as Dr. Drosselmeyer, and the brilliant dance pairing of Ian Cassidy (as the Nutcracker Prince) with Melissa Hough (as the Sugar Plum Fairy).
That latter combination would produce a memorable grand pas de deux in Act Two, and the brilliant company of supporting dancers enhanced all the featured dancers.
Yet another star of this stunning ballet was the staging itself. Complementing the classic and dreamlike choreography of Mr. Stevenson, the scenic and costume designs of Desmond Heeley were radiantly beautiful. Lisa Pinkham nicely recreated the original lighting designs of Duane Schuler. Following the wintry and whimsical procession of arriving guests, the very first scene draws us into the warmth and joy of the Christmas party in the grand and elegant home of frisky old Herr Stahlbaum and his wife. The room seems almost to surround the audience with its three-dimensional aspect, curved staircases, wooden ceiling beams, evergreen garlands, warm earth-tone colors, and soaring Christmas tree.
The joyful atmosphere of arriving partygoers, dancing guests, robotic toys and playful children is beautifully captured. It all reminded me of the exquisite Christmas windows we saw as children when my parents walked us past department stores like Saks, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman’s on 5th Avenue in New York.
Soon the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer arrives to enchant the children with his tricks and present Clara with her special gift of the toy soldier Nutcracker.
In bed that night, her dream of the Nutcracker takes us to the enchanted Land of Sweets and the magical world of the Snow Queen who dances divinely with the Nutcracker Prince amid a very convincing onstage snowstorm. The exquisite music and elegant dancing then collide for such memorable segments as the delicate Waltz of the Snowflakes, the flamenco-styled Spanish Dance, the seductive Arabian Dance, the swashbuckling Chinese Dance, and the rousing acrobatics of the Russian Dance. Adding to the merriment of Clara’s dream is the Dance of the “Mirlitons,” the huge and amusing Madame Bonbonaire with her clowns, and then the very lovely Waltz of the Flowers.
The aforementioned grand pas de deux had a dreamlike beauty all its own. How wonderful to discover at ballet’s end that this world of wonder had really happened right there before our very eyes. Thank goodness it wasn’t a dream!
The Houston Ballet’s 33 performances of THE NUTCRACKER continue in the Brown Theater at the Wortham Center in downtown Houston through December 27th. For tickets and information call 713-227-2787 or visit the website at www.houstonballet.org