By the Numbers

While there is no truth to the critic's rumor that excessive viewings of The Nutcracker cause brain damage, it's worth saying that a much better bet is Ben Stevenson's Alice in Wonderland if you want to take a child to the ballet this season. It's far more entertaining for all ages, and it's considerably shorter.

Alice is one of Stevenson's stable of full-length story ballets, the genre he does best. It has a recognizable plot -- based on Lewis Carroll's 1856 novel -- and delightful sets and animal costumes. The vignettes of Alice's travels down the rabbit hole move swiftly along with minimal staging and fluid music by Joseph Horovitz. Nadine Baylis's designs for the fantasy characters use masks to create the shy Dodo Bird, Cheshire Cat, hookah-smoking Caterpillar, Unicorn, frogs and assorted lobsters. At an hour and 45 minutes, it's a fun frolic designed to keep a child's eye and not strain the adults' attention span too much.

The dancing is nothing spectacular, except for Tiger Lily's fouettés in the second act, part of a grand pas de deux that is one of the only recognizable classical stylings. Mireille Hassenboehler, partnered by a capable Ian Casady, whipped them out in a recent matinee. The athletic Mauricio Cañete raced through the production as the always-late White Rabbit, but the role has none of the fireworks choreography he has become known for. Various dancers cavort as the fanciful animals, although none is of note except Cleopatra Williams, who uses her flexi-torso to give real life to the Dormouse. She slides and wiggles through a fairly innovative pas with Firat Kazbek Özsoy's Cheshire Cat. Those who attend matinees full of children can expect to hear the whispered "Cheshire" ripple through the audience like the wave at Minute Maid Park every time the cat appears.

As the Duchess, veteran Phillip Broomhead does the shaken baby dance with hilarity, without being too camp. Also en travesti, Keith Glenn as the towering Queen of Hearts effortlessly lifts the King in an amusing duet. All of the favorite characters are here and they look wonderful, even if their movements are not always well scripted. The Caterpillar's crawl is entertaining to watch as he belly-inches his way across the floor, but the prancing of the Unicorn is mundane. Better are the ensemble sections with swirls of color and vivid lighting by Timothy Hunter. The dancers don't look too taxed, but they do seem to be having fun with the production.

As the last ballet of Stevenson's final season as artistic director, Alice is not the showstopping, career-capping spectacle one would expect. (There will be a retrospective gala of Stevenson's work June 15.) And one question concerns the depth of the male bench. Once again Dorio Pérez, who retired in 1999, has been resurrected to fill in for an ailing Dominic Walsh. Not that Pérez doesn't make a lively Mad Hatter, but is there really no one else?

One of the prime motifs of this ballet is the speaking of Alice, which could have been used even more. The character has little serious dancing, although she floats lovingly and has a nice pas de trois with the Lion and the Unicorn in the first act, and she does get to recite passages from the book. Sara Webb does an excellent job with a sparkling, childish voice (miked) and in fact is a winning Alice throughout. She has the appearance of innocence in both voice and moves, as well as lovely legs, with extensions from here to the heavens. Julie Gumbinner and Laura Richards alternate the role for the rest of the run.

Horovitz's score isn't too strenuous either, but Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra treat it like Mozart. In all, Alice is more an exercise in acting than serious dancing for this company, but it is fun and pretty -- and a superb intro for little ones.

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Marene Gustin