A Prince in Disguise

First things first: is the Houston Ballet's current production of The Nutcracker worth seeing? The answer, which will likely come as a surprise to no one, is yes: it's entertaining, it's meticulously performed and the kids will love it. (Certainly the kids I saw seemed riveted, keeping quiet and in control from the show's beginning to its end, a notable accomplishment, given that many of them looked to be of an age well below that required for admission to elementary school.) Desmond Heeley's sets are spectacular, especially the backdrops he created for the second act visit to the Kingdom of Sweets. The lack of any serious dancing in the first act lets the members of the Ballet show off their acting ability, which is considerable. Pastry cooks fly across the stage in Act Two. The dancing itself, when the production finally gets around to some, sparkles. And then there's the Houston Ballet Orchestra, which is often overshadowed by the dancers it supports, but in this instance gets to shine, in part because of the strength of the Tchaikovsky music and in part because the stately pace of the first act, and the variety of the divertissements in the second, draw more attention than usual to the sounds coming out of the pit.

Second things second: for most of the people who will attend The Nutcracker -- and their numbers are legion -- none of the above really matters. Like A Christmas Carol on the theatrical side, The Nutcracker has a life of its own distinct from the rest of the ballet repertoire. And while a truly awful Nutcracker production might result in smaller audiences, a truly mediocre one probably wouldn't.

It's to the Ballet's credit, then, that it lavishes such loving attention on this particular warhorse, even if there are obvious financial reasons to do so: though the Houston Ballet doesn't depend on Nutcracker ticket sales to the degree that some ballet companies do, those sales still account for 16 percent of the Ballet's total budget. (For the New York City Ballet, Nutcracker money contributes close to one-third of the budget, while the Boston Ballet depends on the Nutcracker for 40 percent of its income.) Where the standard Houston Ballet series runs two weeks, The Nutcracker runs five. And the 40 performances of this ballet almost match the total number of performances of all the other ballets in the company's entire season. As Houston Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson admits, when you have a cash cow of that size, "you need to make sure it looks fresh."

The particular way Stevenson has opted to keep the ballet from getting stale is to emphasize its lighter aspects, throwing in bits of comedy when he can and heightening the flashier elements of the second act dances. That's not the only way the ballet can be played, of course. In Russia, where it originated at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater, The Nutcracker can be solemn, almost gloomy, and in the hands of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland at the American Ballet Theatre, it became a story of a young girl's sensual awakening. (That angle isn't much of a stretch, actually. A young girl is given a male doll by a magician-like relative, then falls asleep with the doll, which mutates into a prince who takes her to an enchanted land ... you don't have to be a Freudian to see where that's headed. The ABT made the story's implications clearer by having Clara be an older girl; in its own celebrated reworking, using sets designed by Maurice Sendak, the Pacific Northwest Ballet had Clara age en route to her fantasy retreat with the Nutcracker Prince. Then the Sugar Plum Fairy is eliminated, with Clara taking over to dance the final romantic pas de deux with the Nutcracker.)

Still, for all that, few dance fans would rank The Nutcracker high on their list of ballets to admire. Stevenson, for one, admitted in an interview last year that when he was a dancer in England, The Nutcracker was far from his favorite work (though ever the conscientious promoter, he went on to add that once he began viewing it from the audience's side of the stage, he liked it better). And even though she had been trotted out by the Ballet's press office to talk about how excited she was to get a chance to dance the showcase role of Snow Queen this year, Houston Ballet corps member Mirielle Hassenboehler had to admit when pressed that while The Nutcracker is a sentimental favorite of hers -- and, as is the case with many children, was her introduction to ballet -- it isn't close to being her choice as the best that dance has to offer.

Actually, Hassenboehler was being gentle in her description of the ballet; other dancers have been heard to mutter, not for attribution, that they loathe the work. That's an exaggeration, of course, and one no doubt created by fatigue and frustration. Dance struggles year round to find an audience, and yet this one ballet, at this one time of the year, packs them in for weeks.

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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Mitchell J. Shields