The Nutcracker is to ballet as Beaujolais Nouveau is to wine: Purists and critics may scoff, but thanks to major American marketing and a certain plebeian charm, both have become holiday traditions.
As a follow-up to the wildly successful Sleeping Beauty by choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker wasn't an immediate success; in fact, it was rather rudely panned at its Russian premiere in 1892: "For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic fate of our ballet, one more step downward."
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It fared a little better as the years went by, but never caught on as well as other 19th-century story ballets (think Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Coppélia). Then a funny thing happened in America in the 1950s. Thanks in part to two nationally televised performances by the New York City Ballet, the ballet the Russians had snubbed became part of the tapestry of postwar America, a sweet holiday tradition that harked back to a simpler time. Suddenly, American companies large and small started programming it into their annual seasons. The Nutcracker became a cash cow for ballet companies — Houston Ballet's 32 performances generate $2.7 million in revenue, about 17 percent of the annual budget.
So, okay. Who cares if it's not a great ballet? Nobody's going to confuse Beaujolais Nouveau with a great Cab either. But you know what? Sometimes it's okay to drink the grape Kool-Aid.
The Nutcracker may be the favorite ballet of many of the one million folks who have seen Ben Stevenson's production of it — heck, it may be the only ballet they've ever seen. For others, it can be an introduction to the world of dance, or just a family ritual that ushers in the season. And for the hordes of little ones (and little-ones-at-heart), it's a magical night of dress-up and spectacular eye candy, with Desmond Heeley's fantasy sets and lush costumes, exploding canons, mechanical rats, a Christmas tree that grows to 40 feet tall, life-size toys, 200 pounds of falling "snow" and flying cooks.
And yes, The Nutcracker even tugs at the heartstrings of jaded critics. But more importantly, its Herculean run allows for an enormous cast, letting dance fans see up-and-coming talent in lead roles. There are eight different casts in all, with 100 students from the Houston Ballet Academy participating.
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This year we're treated to Nao Kusuzaki, Kelly Myernick, Katherine Precourt and Hitomi Takeda debuting as the lyrical Sugar Plum Fairy. The role of the Prince will be danced by Linnar Looris and Jonathan Davidsson in their Houston debuts, as well as Australian Ballet's Andrew Killian — in a cross-country swap — and Houston's Connor Walsh. That's a lot of good ballet.
Opening night, the newly promoted Walsh sparkled as the Nutcracker Prince with his buoyant leaps and fine lines, partnering the lovely Sharon Teague as the Sugar Plum Fairy, a heart-melting Jaquel Andrews as the Snow Queen and the delightfully pert Lauren Majewski as Clara. Busy boy. There was also the husband-and-wife duo of Randy and Melody Herrera pairing up for a rare and lovely partnership in the Arabia section (for a more sensual Arabian, look for Barbara Bears's performances).
With so many dancers performing, it's fun to play spot-the-next-star, but the sheer insanity of the pacing and number of dancers onstage at any one time often overwhelms even the most astute eye. Best to let The Nutcracker roll over you like a wave of Christmas cheer. Just enjoy the spectacle and revel in the energy of the dancers.
And even if you want to rip your ears off after the 7,000th time you hear Tchaikovsky's score in the mall, you'll still enjoy listening to it played live by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Ermanno Florio. There's nothing like hearing the tinkling of the celesta live as the Sugar Plum Fairy takes her first delicate steps in her famous solo. It's a celestial pleasure.