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Houston Ballet Offers a Course of Mini Delights in Nutcracker Sweets

Houston Ballet Soloist Jacquelyn Long.
Houston Ballet Soloist Jacquelyn Long. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Nothing says holiday tradition around town like making your way down to the Wortham Theater Center to see The Nutcracker each year. Well, it’s anything but a normal year, but despite living in a post-COVID world, the Houston Ballet and Artistic Director Stanton Welch have attempted to make lemonade within the lemon-tations of the year in the form of Nutcracker Sweets. The hour-long mixed repertory makes the necessary move to cyberspace, with a program featuring two new works from Welch, a new work spotlighting Houston Ballet II and Students of Houston Ballet Academy, and an abbreviated version of The Nutcracker culled together from footage taken in 2018.

First up, the Houston Ballet’s red curtain opens to a new work choreographed by Welch and set to the slinkiest of holiday tunes, Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” In line with the song, a kitschy, vintage mood is established immediately, with the appearance of an old TV from the 1960s. The TV cuts on, the snowy static fades and black and white turns to color, as we see some familiar faces – Connor Walsh, Jessica Collado, Harper Watters, Alyssa Springer and Oliver Halkowich. They are joined by Kellen Hornbuckle, Jack Wolff, Natalie Varnum, Syvert Lorenz Garcia and Riley McMurray. The group, filmed individually, ham it up in front of a background of shiny trees, with the men decked out in blue snowflake suits and the women in short black dresses with a string of lights design.

Like Kitt’s vocals, Welch’s choreography is a flirtatious wink, good-humored and playful with a sophistication that makes it a little more sherry and mince pie than milk and cookies. It’s low on dance (though I’d be remiss not to mention the pointe work present, including Collado balancing two hands of stacked gifts while up on her toes), but high on acting. In particular, Walsh amusingly walks the line between smarmy and sincere, Collado is absolutely beguiling, and Halkowich is like the most charming used car salesman you’ve ever met. The beauty of this piece is that despite the socially distanced filming – kudos to the editing, by the way – everyone looks like they’re having a good time, and it’s contagious.

The red curtain returns, this time with a sight anyone who’s seen the Houston Ballet’s Nutcracker recently will recognize: antique postcards falling like snowflakes down the screen. The curtain opens again, this time to another new work by Welch, this one to Barbara Streisand’s “Jingle Bells.” Halkowich (a natural comedian who gets to show off his repertoire of exaggerated, animated faces again), Karina González, Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, Christopher Coomer, Allison Miller, Tyler Donatelli, Jacquelyn Long, Mackenzie Richter, Aaron Daniel Sharratt, Hayden Stark, Chandler Dalton, Yumiko Fukuda, Kirsten Hunsberger, Naazir Muhammad, Song Teng, and Chae Eun Yang were called up for this one, and it’s a doozy.

click to enlarge Houston Ballet Corps de Ballet dancer Naazir Muhammad. - PHOTO BY LAWRENCE ELIZABETH KNOX, COURTESY OF HOUSTON BALLET.
Houston Ballet Corps de Ballet dancer Naazir Muhammad.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
From the moment each of eight dancers cartwheel into their individual, Brady Bunch-style box (Christmas-themed, of course, with borders of holly), it is clear that “Jingle Bells” – for Streisand, these dancers and the audience – is a sprint. In holiday onesies and Santa hats, the dancers match the controlled chaos of Babs’ rendition of probably the most ubiquitous of Christmas carols. They traverse the stage in literal leaps and bounds, they hop the length on one foot, and oh the fouettés. It’s a breathless pace, made more so by the constant change in the number of dancers on the screen, but it’s worth it if just for the privilege of seeing 15 Naazir Muhammads do the same audience-pleasing move at the same time.

The Brady Bunch boxes return (though much more Brady-like) for the third work on the program, “Sleigh Ride,” choreographed by Claudio Muñoz and featuring Houston Ballet II and Students of Houston Ballet Academy. If the purpose of “Sleigh Ride” is to prove that the kids are alright, consider it mission accomplished. Between bright smiling faces and lots of jazz hands, antler and Christmas tree headbands, and some lively solo and group dance work (masked when in groups, of course), “Sleigh Ride” is about as cute as a group of kids happily making snowless snow angels. (Yes, that’s here, too.) Muñoz has put together a bustling romp, one well designed to show that his dancers are athletic and nimble.

The curtain and postcards return to open again on a familiar scene: Young Clara Stahlbaum, played by a bright-eyed Yumiko Fukuda, mid tea party in her bedroom on Christmas Eve. It’s no secret that the first act of The Nutcracker goes a long way in establishing story, but this abridged version flies through the setup. Luckily, it’s not at the expense of the Stahlbaums’ family dog, a shaggy sight for sore eyes. Clara’s family is introduced, including kindly parents, an annoying brother and a preening older sister, as well as a couple of Clara’s toys that can’t seem to stay in the toy box, before we move straight into the Stahlbaum family’s Christmas Eve party to meet Drosselmeyer (Oliver Halkowich) and his traveling magic show.

Drosselmeyer introduces some important characters, including the Good Prince Doll (Samuel Rodriguez), Sugar Plum Doll (Tyler Donatelli) and the Evil King Doll (Christopher Gray), who will return later, after a battle between good and evil breaks out under the Stahlbaum Christmas tree. Good prevails, with a little help from Clara, and for her troubles the Nutcracker Prince escorts her and Drosselmeyer to the Land of Sweets.

click to enlarge Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR, COURTESY OF HOUSTON BALLET
Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
This condensed edition of The Nutcracker sacrifices a little in terms of story, yes, but anyone already familiar will follow easily, and it’s also probably better suited for the littlest Nutcracker viewers out there, those whose attention span isn’t quite there yet.

One of the major benefits of a recorded performance such as this one is the ability to truly appreciate the little things and a couple of the big ones. The little ones include things like the Evil King Doll’s frozen sneer and moonwalk, new angles of the rats as they invade the Stahlbaum living room, and a little smile on the face of one of the medic mice as they run through a scene. The big ones are Tim Goodchild’s scenic and costume designs in the Land of Sweets, an ethereal dreamland made all the more dreamy by Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting designs.

Sadly, the divertissements of the second act are mostly relegated to a montage set to the music of the Trepak. But we do get Mónica Gómez and Luzemberg Santana, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince, dancing a light and lovely pas de deux. The pair’s connectedness is evident. Solo, they are just as stellar, with Gómez bringing such delicacy to her sections and Santana bringing strength.

Following The Nutcracker, we receive an unexpectedly hopeful yet poignant punctuation mark on the festivities in the form of sweet-voiced Melody Mennite singing “O Holy Night” while photos of the Houston Ballet family are displayed.

Nutcracker Sweets is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. It sparkles with joy and reassures with tradition in more ways than one. To be clear, there’s nothing like making the trek over to the Wortham Theater Center to see The Nutcracker in its entirety. But until then, Nutcracker Sweets is a gift, a touch of normalcy in a crazy year and a reminder that the folks over at Houston Ballet want to entertain you as much as you want to be entertained.

Nutcracker Sweets is available now. Single tickets can be purchased here for $35 until the final on-demand date, January 8, 2021.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.