Snow Job

Houston Ballet's The Snow Maiden loses none of its icy luster the second time around, returning after its world premiere here in 1998. Artistic director Ben Stevenson presents a Russian fairy tale of Father Frost's daughter seeking true love with another's betrothed, and it is still both a balletomane's treat and dancing eye candy for the uninitiated.

The story and pageantry make it a great first ballet, although clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes puts it beyond the threshold of most children. Only the most ardent of dates will be able to say they stayed awake, let alone enjoyed every minute of it. So here's a tip: Skip the first act.

Everyone knows the society audience tends to leave in gaggles during intermission, so by the third act of any ballet there's always plenty of prime seating. But the defectors have it backward. The best dancing, sets, costumes and music -- particularly for The Snow Maiden -- are in the second and third acts.

The opener, "The Forest," drags on; late arrivals can get the gist from the program notes. It introduces the buffoonish Father Frost, who is never seen again anyway, and his childlike coming-of-age daughter, Snegurochka. She's no ice princess, this frosty nymph cavorting through Desmond Heeley's glittering wonderland with impish delight. She catches sight of the town lovebirds, falls for Misgir (the man) and, ignoring the warnings of all the snow creatures, dashes to town in her sleigh.

Those who don't make the first act will miss the Snow Maiden's dance with her snowflake friends, which is a sumptuous, crystalline delight reminiscent of the snow scene in that other Tchaikovsky ballet, The Nutcracker. They'll also miss two lovely and loving pas de deux, but on the plus side there's no need to sit through the reindeer games. Grown men should not gambol about the stage with horns on their heads.

Bolshoi Ballet star Nina Ananiashvili returned to Houston for the role Stevenson created for her. She alone is worth the admission price, as she has the most delicate hands and feet, expressive face framed by long black wavy hair, huge puppy-dog eyes and a killer arabesque. Ananiashvili is one of the finest classical ballerinas dancing in the world -- Houston's lucky to claim her as a part-time principal.

If anything, the lithe dancer is better than she was in the premiere two years ago. She alternates the role through the rest of this run with homegrown star Lauren Anderson and Barbara Bears. They all give very different interpretations.

Stevenson envisioned the snowy ballet with two people: Ananiashvili and the Cuban heartthrob Carlos Acosta. He's also a part-time principal, and spends most of his dancing days with London's Royal Ballet. His role has been inherited by Phillip Broomhead, Yin Le and, in the first cast, Dominic Walsh.

Walsh doesn't have the balloon of "Air" Acosta's hanging-in-the-wind jumps, nor his sheer charisma. But he handles the role of Misgir nicely, turns in some fair solo variations and partners both the Snow Maiden and his intended, Coupava, without a misstep. The fierce little Dawn Scannell danced opposite him as the intended bride, giving a fine turn in a role that has much better choreography than it does depth. In Act II she is amused at Snegurochka's play for her man, and by Act III (okay, it's the middle of her wedding) she runs off in tears. One never knows whether to feel sorry for her or disgusted. Wimp.

Besides the doll-like Ananiashvili, the real star is the production itself.

John Lanchbery arranged the score, played to perfection by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Ermanno Florio. Heeley's icicle paradise goes from winter wonderland to shimmering castle. The brilliantly colored costumes he designed create a world of make-believe where, as A Chorus Line would say, "Everything is beautiful at the ballet."

What to watch for: Ananiashvili's feet, which are as fluid as her hands, Parren Ballard's drunken dance, all the big townsfolk dance numbers and, well, all of the men. Call it the Acosta Aftereffect, but nature does seem to abhor a vacuum. Once the mega-male star left, instead of one guy dancing up to his caliber, the entire male corps got better. Go figure, but they're one of the best in the country right now.

Yes, the Snow Maiden does die at the end, melted by her love. But what a way to go. The final dying dance, coming on the heels of a classical wedding grand pas, caps the fairy tale. Audiences may not have tears in their eyes or leave humming the lesser-known Tchaikovsky score, but chances are they'll be back at the ballet before they know it.

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Marene Gustin