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A Prince in Disguise

Why? Tradition has something to do with it, obviously, as does the sheer strength of Tchaikovsky's score, which may not contain his most beautiful ballet music (that would be Sleeping Beauty) or his most stirring (Swan Lake), but which is more consistently engaging than any other ballet piece he wrote. And the sheer spectacle doesn't hurt, though if one simply wanted spectacle, the Ballet's recent production of The Merry Widow would probably have been a better choice.

That, in fact, is where much of the frustration over The Nutcracker lies: everything that's good about this ballet can be found better elsewhere. Want a more romantically moving pas de deux than the dance of the Nutcracker and the Sugar Plum Fairy? Try Don Quixote. Better example of corps work than The Nutcracker's snowflake sequence or Waltz of the Flowers? Try the final scene of Coppelia. More engaging characters and drama? Try Peer Gynt (the first act of which is the finest thing the Ballet has done lately).

Each of those works was danced this year by the Houston Ballet, and none of them drew anywhere near what the Nutcracker will draw. In fact, given that the Ballet tends to get a lot of repeat viewers over the rest of its season, it's likely that close to five times as many people will see the Ballet's Nutcracker as will see any part of everything else they have to offer.

So is The Nutcracker the ballet that ate the rest of dance, sucking up the audience and leaving nothing behind for anything else, or does it simply offer something no other ballet does? A bit of both, probably. Hype begets hype, and there's no other dance performance that gets the attention The Nutcracker does. But at the same time, The Nutcracker likely appears friendly to non-dance fans in a way other ballets don't. The arts, especially when presented with a capital A, can appear intimidating; the idea that ballet is something you can actually enjoy rather than simply appreciate or be ennobled by is a hard one to grasp, in part because some ballet patrons would just as soon it not be grasped. But in the 51 years since William Christensen unknowingly started the ball rolling in San Francisco with the first American production of The Nutcracker, the ballet has grown bigger than the art that spawned it and become acknowledged as sheer entertainment that's open to anyone who wants to watch it.

The trick is to get people to see the rest of ballet the same way, and to find for themselves that The Nutcracker isn't at the top of the heap when it comes to being enchanting. Ben Stevenson and the dancers he's gathered together into the Houston Ballet probably understand that trick better than most in modern dance; few companies do better when it comes to capturing the theatrical, showman's element of ballet.

All of which circles around to the original question: is The Nutcracker, modest of artistic reach and moderate in the quality of its dance, worth seeing? Yes. Because it's a lot of fun.

The Nutcracker plays through December 30 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-

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