The Nutcracker isn't just a holiday spectacle; for many children, it's their introduction to ballet. For a few, it is the start of a lifelong love affair with all things dance. It's a Christmas story, but one that has lasting appeal beyond the holiday season. The Yuletide setting is really just a backdrop for a story that spans the fantastical realms of childhood imagination. All of the best fairy tale elements can be found in The Nutcracker, including a dashing prince, an enchanted queen (of the more benevolent variety), magical landscapes, and a plucky heroine that goes on the adventure of her life.
The story appeals to every kid who loves Christmas, but in the world of dance, The Nutcracker means getting the opportunity to watch classical ballet in its finest form. There are no filler scenes in Ben Stevenson's celebrated version, and the two-act ballet is nonstop dance from start to finish. For the dancers of Houston Ballet, the annual production allows them to polish their technique in the production's familiar and beloved roles.
When it comes to beloved roles, none is quite as coveted among ballerinas as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clara may be the central character, but it's the Sugar Plum Fairy who gets to dance with the Nutcracker Prince in that wonderful final pas de deux. Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker opens this Friday, and this year, recently promoted soloist Allison Miller will take on the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy for the first time.
Every little girl dreams of dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy, but this iconic role is no laughing matter. "Though it may not look like it, this is one of the most challenging roles in classical ballet repertoire," says Miller. "It is so pure and technically demanding, yet, the character must be in control and sugary-sweet. Aside from building up the physical stamina required for the part, I have been working on what my Sugar Plum Fairy will convey." The latter is of significant importance considering Houston Ballet's deep talent pool and the rich tradition of ballerinas who have danced the role on the Brown Theater stage.
Stevenson's ballets are a treat to watch, but they are also favorites among dancers. "Ben Stevenson's ballets are a joy to dance," says Miller. "They are traditional and classical, and Ben has such a gift of storytelling through choreography. This version has a lovely party scene in the first act, and the Kingdom of the Sweets in the second act is dazzling."
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It's in the second act that the Sugar Plum Fairy makes her appearance and introduces Clara to the enchanted inhabitants of her sugary realm. The Clara character is really a step-in for the audience, for it's the audience that is treated to the wonderful dance sequences. Clara sips her tea, and we get to watch the magic unfold. The Spanish, the Arabians, the Chinese, and the Russians all present their dances, as do the Flowers with their beautiful waltz. When Clara begins to doze off, signaling the end of her fantasia, the audience can't help but want more.
Ben Stevenson's version of The Nutcracker is heavy on dance, which makes it a favorite with adults as well as children. The story elements pass quickly so the focal point is always on the dazzling movement. Miller will also be dancing the roles of Clara and the Snow Queen this year, which will give her the opportunity to showcase her versatility. I can't imagine a more diverse set of qualities to master for a single production, from imp-like girlishness to icy elegance to beguiling coquettishness.
It's a tall order - made taller thanks to her pointe shoes - but it's one that Miller is happy to fulfill, especially when one considers the show's place in Houston holiday traditions. "The Nutcracker is timeless and relatable, and the cheery production from Ben Stevenson keeps people coming back year after year. It is a magical show that immediately gets you in the holiday spirit." Not to mention a spirit to dance.
The Nutcracker runs November 29 through December 29 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center. For information, call 713-227-ARTS or visit HB's website.