The Setup: Houston Ballet has performed The Nutcracker for the past 40 years, but it's the 1987 production with Ben Stevenson's revised choreography that has become the definitive holiday experience. The set and costumes by Desmond Heeley evoke an old-world Yuletide spirit, but the focus of Stevenson's version is the dance. Like Clara, the ballet's sprite-like protagonist, the audience is held captive by the magical inhabitants of this fairy world and their singular movement.
The Execution: This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stevenson production, so at this point, the excitement of revisiting The Nutcracker is being able to watch the stars of the company inhabit these familiar characters. The November 24 evening performance saw Amy Fote perform the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Fote, who is dancing her final performances at Houston Ballet, is an otherworldly presence. In her hands, the Sugar Plum Fairy becomes not only an empyreal figure, but a warm personality with a human heart. Her lines are so elegant, so supple, that every developpe and panche becomes a moment of unearthly beauty.
Speaking of the unearthly, first soloist Melissa Hough was exceptional in the first act's centerpiece role of the Snow Queen. As ruler of the Land of Snow, Hough is appropriately icy, but her dance is far from frozen. Every bourree sequence, pique arabesque and port de bras is so wonderfully realized that she gives the impression of true royalty. Even the way that she holds herself while being lifted is suggestive of a stateliness that only appears in princess storybooks.
Act II is the liveliest half of the ballet. Here is where the familiar themes of Tchaikovsky's music take shape and the audience is treated to a wonderful parade of dance by the foreign visitors to the Kingdom of Sweets. There are the Spanish, the Chinese, the solitary Gopak and the gorgeous flowers, but on the evening of the 24th, the audience especially appreciated the Arabian duo of Sara Webb and Linnar Looris. Their lifting created lovely shapes in the air, and the seamless manner in which they intertwined limbs was nothing short of hypnotic. By the time the Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy join the ensemble for the final dance, I wasn't prepared to say good-bye to the Kingdom of Sweets. This is one holiday tradition that's worth keeping.
Verdict: Ben Stevenson's iteration of The Nutcracker is the stuff of Christmas magic. Even for regular patrons of Houston Ballet who are familiar with the company's dancers and their innumerable gifts, this holiday classic does the soul good. Clara, her Nutcracker Prince and the denizens of the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets are reminders of the essential nature of dreaming, the importance of tradition and, most importantly, why we fell in love with the ballet in the first place.
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The Nutcracker runs through December 30 at Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 501 Texas Avenue. For information, call 713-227-ARTS or visit HB's website.