A Nut for Nostalgia

Reviewing The Nutcracker is akin to critiquing Santa Claus. The ballet has a childish story, overly broad characterizations and, by today's standards, simplistic choreographic dialogue. But to say so would be sacrilegious to an American holiday icon that's been around since San Francisco Ballet produced the full first-length version in 1944. These days, not seeing The Nutcracker is like not eating turkey on Thanksgiving.

Luckily, Houston Ballet's Nutcracker, celebrating its 30th anniversary this month at the Wortham Theater Center, has more going for it than many productions. Like so many of artistic director Ben Stevenson's story ballets, The Nutcracker is a lavish spectacle with glorious sets and sumptuous costumes designed by Desmond Heeley and a Tchaikovsky score brilliantly brought to life by Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra. Houston has been doing Stevenson's version since he came aboard in 1976. Heeley created the current look in 1987, but it still dazzles.

Houston's Nut may not be as old as San Francisco's, nor as beautifully choreographed as George Balanchine's version for New York City Ballet -- which has been making Christmas-money magic since 1954 -- but it is the mainstay of the Texas company, grossing more than $2 million last year, some 25 percent of the organization's total earned income. Thousands will see the holiday production this year; but don't go expecting to see a psychological adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's girl-coming-of-age tale (Pacific Northwest Ballet did that in 1986), a love story between girl and nutcracker (Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland did that for American Ballet Theatre in 1977) or anything new plot-wise. The last original Nut was Mark Morris's 1991 The Hard Nut, which was set in the '60s and featured a homosexual pas de deux.

What Stevenson does give audiences is a frothy, fun two hours -- complete with giant Christmas trees, live toys, pink rats en pointe, pretty ballerinas and a scrumptious Kingdom of the Sweets set that gives new meaning to the term eye candy. As an introduction to dance for both children and non-theatergoing adults, it works its magic well, which may account for Houston Ballet's financial stability in the face of so much recent red ink in the local arts world.

The production also gives practically every dancer in the company a chance at a solo -- a reason for even experienced balletomanes to attend. On opening night, soloists Randy Herrera and Leticia Oliveira gave a classically cool grand pas de deux as the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Although Oliveira doesn't quite possess the spun-sugar fragility one expects in the delicate solo, she has lovely lines and a regal carriage, and this real-life couple should provide sparks in more contemporary stylings.

Herrera also partnered Cleopatra Williams as the Snow Queen, to the oohing and aahing of the audience as flakes fell and the chorus swelled. The snow scene is by far one of the most delightful in ballet make-believe, but it works best theatrically when Clara and the Prince dance the beginning sequence. Since Stevenson uses dancers as opposed to students in the role of Clara, it would have worked, particularly with corps de ballet dancer Melody Mennite as Clara. Despite a slip in scene one, she was able to portray childish wonder without being silly and showed some graceful body lines despite the nightgown costume. She's one to watch.

The athletic Mauricio Cañete did a blowout Russian dance in the Gopak number, and principal Dominic Walsh donned the cloak of Dr. Drosselmeyer with flair. The eye-popping award goes to Zdenek Konvalina, new to the company this past season. As the male center of the Mirliton trio, he danced little opening night. But then he didn't have to. Konvalina has the most beautiful feet and legs to be seen on Houston's stage since Carlos Acosta split for London. Catch him as the Nutcracker Prince on the evenings of December 7 and 23 and in the matinees on December 20 and 22.

In all, there are nine different casts for the 33 shows this year. Don't worry about seeing one with big names -- the real stars of The Nutcracker are the sets, the special effects and Tchaikovsky's score. Good dancing is just a bonus.

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Marene Gustin