New Faces, Old Dance

Give the Houston Ballet credit for this: At the two recent performances of The Nutcracker that I saw, the children in the audience seemed to be having a marvelous time. When the mice fought the toy soldiers in the middle of the first act, they tittered in appreciation. When the winged pastry chefs flew into the Kingdom of Sweets at the start of the second act, they burst into applause. And at the very end, when Clara returned to her bed and the Nutcracker Prince saluted to bring the ballet to a close, they paid attention -- no small feat, that.

Still, keeping the kids happy is about all I can give the Ballet credit for. Where the adults were concerned, things were less rosy. The Nutcracker, of course, is the great conundrum of classical ballet (at least in America): It's at once the most popular work in the ballet repertoire, and the most tired. The trick for any ballet company is figuring out how to entertain the once-a-year audience members who show up for the spectacle and the tradition, and yet not disappoint the regulars who actually like to see people dance. It's not an impossible task -- of late, the company that's probably done the best job of that is Pacific Northwest Ballet, with their Freudian-inspired/Maurice Sendak-set-designed version -- but it's not an easy one either.

Generally, the pitch to the regulars is that the large number of performances -- the Ballet is offering up 35 this season, with ten different casts -- gives them a chance to see corps members who wouldn't normally have starring roles strut their stuff. And there's something to be said for that, though it assumes that Nutcracker-goers will either attend multiple shows (a happy thought for the Ballet's bookkeepers) or else pass up the sure thing of a Nutcracker Prince danced by, say, Carlos Acosta, in hopes of being the first on the block to say they saw a new star.

And it is the princes who are being pushed this year. (Normally it's the Sugar Plum Fairy or the Snow Queen.) Much is being made of the fact that this Nutcracker features three relatively new male members of the Ballet -- Yin Le of China, Fernando Moraga of Chile and David Makhateli of Georgia (the Eastern European country that was once part of the Soviet Union, not the Southern state). All three are fresh to Houston this year, and all three have yet to make much of a mark, though Le did acquit himself well early this season in Balanchine's Four Temperaments.

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If last weekend's matinee performances were any indication, though, it's unlikely any of the trio will emerge as a focal point of the company anytime soon. As the Nutcracker Prince in Saturday's program, Le cut a fine figure when dancing solo, but faltered when a partner entered the picture. He seemed to be so concerned about not dropping the Sugar Plum Fairy (Shirley Sastre) that he couldn't take his eyes off his hands. Alas, it was all for naught, as he did end up dropping her -- not dramatically, but noticeably -- in their final pas de deux. Chalk it up to nervousness, perhaps, but while the 19-year-old Le has obvious potential, he's also obviously still in need of seasoning.

Moraga, in contrast, clearly knew what he was doing when he took over the lead role on Sunday. At 28, he may be new to Houston, but he's not exactly new to ballet, having danced with the Contemporary Ballet of Santiago, among others. Still, while his partnering was admirably sure, he didn't cut loose much when given the opportunity to do so in his solos. A comfortable and safe dancer he may be, but exciting? Not hardly, at least not here.

That same problem of simple competence afflicted Makhateli, who danced the part of Gopak, the Russian dancer, at both matinees. Typecasting aside -- might a performer from near Russia be more familiar with Russian dances? -- Makhateli didn't do much with what he was given. Granted, he wasn't given much; like too many of this Nutcracker's second-act divertissements, the Russian dance has been reduced to little more than a few gymnastic moves -- a few leaps, a spin, and Makhateli was out of there. Even so, it would have been nice to see a bit more verve. Makhateli did the job, but that's about it.

It's not, however, that the Nutcracker performances didn't reveal something. It gave corps member Kim Wagman a chance to show that she has charisma to spare; both in the first act, when she shuffled across stage as a grandmother, and in the second act, when she was the lead flower in "Waltz of the Flowers," she all but glowed. That she danced her part well didn't hurt, but that she acted it well made it even better.

Too, the matinees were a reminder that familiarity isn't always bad. On both days Jose Herrera and Kathryn Warakomsky were partnered in the second act's "Arabian Dance," and the two longtime Ballet members played off each other with a cool surety that was a pleasure to watch. They may not quite have saved this Nutcracker, but they sure made it easier to take.

The Nutcracker plays through December 28 at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater, 500 Texas, 227-2787.

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