Surprise Party

If The Nutcracker is a barometer for measuring the holiday spirit, it's going to be a lively season. At Houston Ballet's opening night, there was no way the audience could watch the clock during the first act or zone out during Act II's dancing bonbons. The ballet's vibrantly colored costumes (has that party guest always worn chartreuse?) were captivating, and its choreographic nuances (have the snowflakes always done those jetés near the end?) marvelous.

Houston Ballet has danced this Nutcracker production for 16 years. Considering the past several seasons, this year's show was as surprising as going to unwrap a sweater on Christmas morning and instead finding a box of diamond earrings.

Leave it to the newcomers to stir things up. In July, Australian native Stanton Welch arrived to take over Houston Ballet's artistic directorship, bringing with him one of ballet's most devout classicists, Maina Gielgud. She was artistic director of the Australian Ballet when Welch was resident choreographer there.

Putting these two in charge of coaching this year's performance seemed to snap everyone out of what had become a comfortable routine. Not that the former Nutcracker was bad. This one just seems better. The company danced Ben Stevenson's choreography against Desmond Heeley's costumes and sets with focus and precision.

Normally, if an audience member picks one dancer and follows him through the entire party scene, soon enough the character will slouch, scratch behind his ear or do something else that is relatively un-Nutcracker-party-scene-like. Not the case here. Led by a breezily cheerful Laura Richards as Clara, the characters in Act I went purposefully about their business so that by the time Fritz broke Clara's beloved Nutcracker doll, we were actually paying attention.

Even the fight with the Rat King was intriguing. The finely polished dancing made all the difference. The formations were clean, the dancers were a team, and the demise of the rats was compelling. Again -- reality check -- has the Rat King ever done so much? Lucas Priolo gave an interpretation that was more than the usual pantomime. Although his oversize rat head commanded attention, so did his legwork, which was as sharp as the sword he yielded. By the time the Nutcracker Prince led Clara into the Kingdom of Snow, we had been treated to a great party and a compelling fight.

Tchaikovsky's 111-year-old score gained momentum in the snow scene, where dancers showed off their technique and musicality. The corps de ballet traversed the stage in constantly changing patterns, executing fluttery footwork beneath falling snow. Ermanno Florio led an energetic Houston Ballet Orchestra.

Many ballerinas cite the Snow Queen as their dream role, and on opening night Kristina Harper expertly stepped in for an injured Lauren Anderson. Harper and Nutcracker prince Zdenek Konvalina initially danced as if they were on a first date -- cautious and somewhat reserved -- but by the time he lifted her onto his shoulders toward the end, the two were smiling and having a good time. The mood stayed light through Act II.

During the ballet's second half, Clara was shown an array of divertissements including the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian dances, the Dance of the Mirlitons and the Waltz of the Flowers. The company looked exceptionally confident. In the Spanish dance, for instance, Kelly Myernick extended each movement to the very last moment so that we thought she might not make that next cartwheel into her partner's arms. By waiting, she added suspense -- and fun.

Sara Webb performed her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy as if in a dreamlike state, closing her eyes at the quickest of turns, then tossing her head back during fabulously high lifts, as if she were automatically going to be lowered onto a pile of imaginary pillows.

Webb's partner, Konvalina, had to step out of Act II because of an unfortunate mid-show injury. When Simon Ball stepped in as his replacement, the company's level of professionalism and teamwork soared. No matter what goes on behind the scenes (and in this case, it was an obviously pain-ridden Konvalina who hobbled off stage, mid-dance), the onstage show must continue. Ball made the mishap look like it had been planned all along.

The new Welch-Gielgud artistic team might be behind this year's polished production, and it's realistic to imagine that the shine may fade as everyone gets to know each other. But with its focus, teamwork -- and even unexpected injuries -- this year's Nutcracker was a milestone for the company. And a merry one, at that.

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Christie Taylor