Since its premiere in 1987, Ben Stevenson's version of The Nutcracker performed by the Houston Ballet has become a constant for the city of Houston during the holiday season. As previously announced, this year is the the last time audiences will be able to see Stevenson’s version of the classical ballet in Houston, before Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch unveils his own choreography next year.
Act I began energetically as party guests journey through the snow to the Stahlbaum family’s home, illustrated beautifully by Desmond Heeley’s layered set. Upon arrival, Stevenson showcases his knack for timing and comedy. Each character has his/her own inner-dialogue and motivation which makes for colorful interactions and well-paced transitions throughout the party scene. The elderly party-goers earned generous laughter from the audience as they shuffle across the stage, get a little boozy, and clap off-beat to music. Allison Miller’s portrayal of the sweet and starry-eyed Clara was nicely danced but just shy of embodying true childlike wonder.
As Act I continued, the battle between the rats and the soldiers was especially fun, displaying committed performances by both groups. The playful nature of the rats’ scurrying bourrées and scratching claws was delightful to watch. The snow scene offered regal dancing by soloist Nao Kusuzaki. Other than one lift that displayed more work than fluidity, the snow pas de deux between Kusuzaki and principal dancer Jared Mathews had many lovely moments. The Snowflakes, danced by members of the corps de ballet, displayed equal parts precision and artistry, making for a visually appealing and rich scene.
In Act II, in the Kingdom of Sweets, the stage is dressed with cakes, candies and fluffy cats. Clara is greeted by high-flying cooks upon her arrival, which particularly impressed the excited children of the audience. Sara Webb and Christopher Coomer stood out in their portrayal of Coffee from Arabia. Choreographically, the sultry and coy intertwining of limbs mixed with impressive, acrobatic lifts results in an overall stellar duet.
The Russian solo, danced by Christopher Gray, was an obvious crowd favorite of Act II, and rightly so. Gray flawlessly executed ten fouetté turns followed by a double pirouette and three toe-touches consecutively.
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The highlight of the evening was Karina Gonzalez in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. From the start of her solo to her final bow, Gonzalez filled the stage with subtle nuance and exquisite dancing, which resulted in a powerhouse performance.
If you’ve somehow missed out on seeing Stevenson’s The Nutcracker for the past 28 seasons, do yourself a favor and catch your final chance. If you’re a seasoned patron, be sure to experience Karina Gonzalez as the Sugar Plum Fairy; she’s mesmerizing.
Times vary daily. Through December 27. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $39 to $139.