Despite Its Title, Houston Ballet's Nutcracker Is a Holiday Stress Reliever

The Setup: It just wouldn't be the holiday season without Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker, now would it? Once again the company has begun its mega-run of this Christmas classic created by HB Artistic Director Emeritus Ben Stevenson in 1987.

The Execution: Both the charming, family-style choreography and Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes still look as fresh and as filling as chestnuts roasting on an open fire. (Feel free to sing along.) Part of the beauty of this ballet is the joy Houston Ballet Orchestra brings to Tchaikovsky's incredibly danceable score, and the rest lies in the fantasy elements: Toys come alive, the Christmas tree grows to dizzying heights, mice attack, snow falls onstage, pastry chefs fly. It's just magical. And the little ones in the audience -- dressed in their holiday finest with their eyes all aglow -- just love it. Dancing? Oh yes, there's plenty of that as well.

Because there are so many roles and so many, many performances, the cast rotates, which means you might see stars and stars-in-the-making. The corps de ballet performs solos, and even the assistant conductors take a turn with the baton. You might get to see new principal Jun Shuang Huang dancing his first Nutcracker Prince (there is no Christmas celebration, let alone Nutcracker, in China) or see corps member Jordan Reed in her first Arabian solo. Last Sunday, demi soloist Jessica Collado turned in a pristine Snow Queen performance partnered by Linnar Looris as the Prince, but it was corps member Elise Judson who truly charmed as Clara. Still, this ballet is less about who's dancing what and more about the entire ensemble performing a Houston holiday classic.

The Verdict: From the mimed overture to the coda where all the sweets and the Sugar Plum Fairy dance with joy, you'll feel the holiday spirit move you. Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker is the best holiday stress reliever. It's doubtful even the Grinch could watch this ballet without feeling all warm and tingly.

(Through December 26. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787. Tickets here.)

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