A Touch of the Familiar

The Chevy Suburban of ballet, The Nutcracker is both durable and familiar. It's a comfortable ride, and one that, with the Houston Ballet in charge, spins away with pretty confections and fluff. The sweetness reflects Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson's desire to create an English pantomime style dance that parents and kids can laugh at together, while keeping the ballet's celebrated characters. With flying cooks and giant white cats posed near pillars of cakes, it's not difficult to see why Stevenson's Nutcracker has a particular attraction for children.

Stevenson's Nutcracker has become the only Nutcracker for many in Houston, but where it fits into the grand scheme of the work and the dozen or so major choreographers who have redone Lev Ivanov's 1892 original isn't quite clear. It's definitely less romantic, and to some degree much sillier, than any other Nutcracker I've seen, though the silliness is often nicely tempered with elements such as the Sugar Plum Fairy's delicate pas de deux with the Prince and Desmond Heeley's fanciful "Waltz of the Flowers" costumes: green-stemmed bodices, tiny caps with antennae and brilliant poppy-red skirts.

The desire to wrestle the original Nutcracker into new forms certainly isn't unique -- though Stevenson's version of the Christmas tale is more a gentle homage to the original than it is a takeoff. Choreographer Mark Morris has parodied the tale in his The Hard Nut, in which jumbo-size ballerinas fly across the stage as Snowflakes, and the Houston Ballet ends its run with The Nutty Nutcracker, a performance that allows the dancers to express their genuine feelings (sometimes rather hostile) about performing the ballet 40 plus times a season. On a more serious, and perhaps more inventive, level, choreographer Donald Byrd is making The Harlem Nutcracker, danced to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's 1964 adaptation of the Tchaikovsky score.

The delicacy of that score has perpetuated The Nutcracker at least as much as the dance itself. The most famous sequence, the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," was specially composed to highlight a newly invented instrument, the celesta. Given how well the music works, it's amazing that it was basically written to order: Marius Petipa, the choreographer who began the ballet before taking ill and turning the creative chores over to his assistant Lev Ivanov, gave Tchaikovsky detailed notes with bar lengths and descriptions of each section: "The President and his wife and guests decorate the tree," wrote Petipa of his opening scene, "(delicate, mysterious music, 64 bars)."

To a great degree, The Nutcracker shows what Tchaikovsky was capable of when called on to perform; somewhat similarly, The Nutcracker, especially in Houston, has become a ballet in which younger, less spotlighted dancers show what they can do when called upon. To deal with the grueling schedule -- 41 performances in six weeks -- Stevenson casts a wide range of dancers in an equally wide range of roles. Corps members Julie Gumbinner and Courtney Harris will have their chances at the Sugar Plum Fairy, as will soloist Sally Rojas and principals Lauren Anderson, Dawn Scannell and Tiekka Schofield. Casting fresh dancers in starring roles occasionally leads to timid dancing, but it can also lead to pleasant surprises. The result from this abundant energy and cheerful magic? A big, cushy ride of a production. -- Megan Halverson

The Nutcracker plays through December 29 at the Wortham Center, Brown Theater, 500 Texas, 227-

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Megan Halverson