Even if you've seen The Nutcracker 100 times, you've probably never seen it like this.
This is the choreography of Ben Stevenson, former dancer with the Royal Ballet and artistic director of the Houston Ballet from 1976 until 2003. The choreography is noticeably different from Marius Petipa's original version, and it's lovely. Arabian is danced as a pas de deux, not a contortionistic solo. Using two dancers allows for an even more beautiful, serpentine variation. The Russian variation, usually danced in a trio, is turned into a solo. The effect is astonishing. Jim Nowakowski commands the high-energy piece, literally kicking his face four times during his jumps. Anyone else in this variation would have been irrelevant, since it was impossible to ignore Nowakowski. Kids gasped.
Nutcracker is, after all, about children. It should be presented as magically as possible. Houston Ballet agreed; this was the most kid-friendly production I've ever seen. The sets and costumes, created by Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heeley, were lush and elaborate, from the expandable Christmas tree to the heavenly Kingdom of Sweets. Pastry chefs suspended by wires flew across the stage comically in the second act, and kids in the audience roared. The giant mice too were out in full form, wearing shaggy brown rat suits as repulsive and squeal-worthy as they were realistic.
But what truly sets this Nutcracker apart is the dancing. The Nutcracker Prince, played by Jun Shuang Huang on Sunday evening, executed perfect double tours with landings as soft as the snow falling from the rafters. Katharine Precourt as the Snow Queen was breathtaking, and Sugar Plum Fairy Amy Fote glowed onstage. There seems to be no weak link in the Houston Ballet. Even Waltz of the Flowers, at which point the young audience usually gets restless, demanded rapt attention. The flower corps did work worthy of soloists, whipping off triple turns effortlessly. If seeing The Nutcracker is a tradition, don't plan on quitting this year. And for first-timers, go -- but you might not see a Nutcracker this good after the Houston Ballet's.
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The Nutcracker runs through December 27 at the Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Tickets start at $19; purchase them online at www.houstonballet.org or by calling 713.227.2787 or 800.828.2787.