The Review is In

Houston Ballet's spectacular new Nutcracker is bigger, better and filled with heart

Houston Ballet's spectacular new Nutcracker is a smash hit

Mackenzie Richter in Houston Ballet The Nutcracker
Mackenzie Richter performs in the Houston Ballet production of The Nutcracker. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Melody Mennite as Clara and the cast of The Nutcracker Houston Ballet
Meloday Mennite as Clara and the cast of the Houston Ballet production of The Nutcracker. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
The cast of The Nutcracker, Houston Ballet
Toy soldiers unite in the Houston Ballet's production of The Nutcracker. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Cast of Houston Ballet The Nutcracker
The cast of the Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
The cast of Houston Ballet The Nutcracker
The cast of Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Melody Mennite as Clara in Houston Ballet The Nutcracker
Melody Mennite as Clara in the Houston Ballet production of The Nutcracker. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Mackenzie Richter in Houston Ballet The Nutcracker
Melody Mennite as Clara and the cast of The Nutcracker Houston Ballet
The cast of The Nutcracker, Houston Ballet
Cast of Houston Ballet The Nutcracker
The cast of Houston Ballet The Nutcracker
Melody Mennite as Clara in Houston Ballet The Nutcracker

The great choreographer George Balanchine always said that his Nutcracker was “for children and for adults who are children at heart.” The reason, he continued, was “…because if an adult is a good person, in his heart he is still a child. In every person the best, the most important part is that which remains from his childhood.”

In interviews with his friend Solomon Volkov in the early 1980s, Balanchine also pointed out that his own production for the New York City Ballet was “more sophisticated than the one in Petersburg.” Everyone has his or her own favorite, and every choreographer seeks to outdo those who came before. After more than a century of new productions from almost every major ballet company in the world, it’s difficult not to make comparisons. 

I have always had a deep fondness for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1976 version for American Ballet Theater, with its hokey psychology and imperial leanings. It shouldn’t work, but it was my gold standard for at least 20 years. More recent interpretations by Mark Morris and Matthew Bourne, from the early 1990s, are filled with experimentation, invention, and intelligence, not to mention a great dose of spectacle. I never tire of either one.

It’s been a while, however, since I’ve seen a worthwhile premiere from a classical ballet company.  

Artistic director Stanton Welch’s long-awaited production for Houston Ballet is not only thoroughly entertaining for children and for the adults who brought them to the theater, it catapaults the company into the international arena. Houston Ballet has had some significant milestones in the past few years, particularly with its stunning staging of Neumeier’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2014 and then performances this season of William Forsythe’s powerful Artifact Suite, which the company also danced in Los Angeles last month. This Nutcracker is one that other companies will envy.  

Did Houston really need a new Nutcracker? Absolutely.

Former artistic director Ben Stevenson made his painfully awkward version for a company that is nothing like the current group or its school. Welch remained patient however, bringing us a stellar innovation that is truly unlike any other Nutcracker I’ve ever seen, and that is saying a lot. Without doubt, it must have cost a fortune, with lavish costumes and sets by Tim Goodchild, lighting design by Lisa J. Pinkham, projections by Wendall Harrington, and choreography by Welch. 

To say that it embodies spectacle is a wild understatement. It is the most spectacular Nutcracker I know, and my jaw remained dropped for the entire first act and most of the second. But its main attribute is more than that.

See it to believe it

Welch has brought us a scenario characterized by a warm and good-hearted sense of humor and a theatrical fascination for all things mysterious. The ballet has a real heart behind it. Secondly, he has engaged the entirety of the company and the school to perform the work. His program notes for the premiere say that “this new production is by far the largest we have ever brought to the stage.” He’s not kidding, and you really do have to see it to believe it. 

Was the dancing lost in all of this spectacular traffic? Hardly. If you remembered the battle of the mice as a big mix of nothing very memorable, you will be amazed at Welch’s re-organization. The list goes on and on. He’s added a set of male snowflakes to partner the women’s corps de ballets in the snow scene. The children at the party dance in intriguing formations and show off what they’ve learned in ballet class. Clara doesn’t just sit back and smile while she strolls through the land of sweets, either. She offers a solo in the Rose Waltz and winds in and out of much of the second-act divertissement. These are only a few examples.  

Any new production should feature some some creative experimentation. I don’t want to put in too many spoilers, but if you’re looking for a typical Mother Ginger scene with some kids hiding under a drag queen’s skirt, you’ll be disappointed. This scene in particular, with a hilarious performance by Oliver Halkowich as French Man, is a great surprise.  

I couldn’t find a program note explaining a Sailor’s Dance in the second-act divertissement, and my piano score of the standard version doesn’t include any music on a nautical theme, but Welch has included this seemingly new scene and also added some countries that didn’t necessarily appear in prior Nutcrackers, such as Denmark. I’d like to know where the nautical music came from, since it fits in well, even if we hardly need additional scenes in the second act. They are all cleverly foreshadowed in the first act party scene, however, which demonstrates a thoughtful, greater organization was at hand. 

Iconic scene

Balanchine, when asked about the production he remembered from Petersburg, said that children rarely appreciate classical dancing. “They are used to talking, they need a story,” he said. Welch seems to have taken this concept to heart, and in so doing he has framed the Sugar Plum pas-de-deux and heightened it as the sole duet-and-variation-solo segment in the second act. This move further valorizes this iconic scene, making it the true climax of the ballet.

Connor Walsh was entirely pristine in his partnering and solos on opening night, with soft, high jumps and a wonderful series of precise, confident lifts. Sara Webb was a perfect Sugar Plum Fairy in every regard. I can’t find any instance of a problem with her performance, and Welch’s choreography seems conceived with her exceptional line in mind. Quite simply, she is strong, elegant, and beautiful. It will be intriguing over the next weeks to see how different dancers interpret these leading parts.  

If there is any shortcoming in the work, it is likely in the Flower Waltz. This scene tripped up Mark Morris as well, who seemed equally perplexed by the smooth brass and lilting, growing melody in the strings. The dance is kind of too long for its own good. Here, Goodchild’s long dresses for the women, recalling a Viennese waltz, are  just too heavy. You can’t really tell what they are doing. The white dresses decorated with tiny flowers don’t quite pop in this otherwise vivid production. It’s difficult to tell they are flowers. Rather, they look more like melting cupcakes covered with colored sprinkles. It’s a small failing, however, and the company has few things to fine-tune in the weeks to come.