The Review is in
An obsessed Nutcracker devotee (and former Mouse King) rates the HoustonBallet's latest take
Blame it on Baryshnikov. The celebrated dancer’s 1977 choreography of The Nutcracker, with its creepy psychological overtones, set me up for years of preconceived notions about the beloved Christmas ballet.
Recently when I told friends and family that I was headed to see the opening night performance of Houston Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Wortham Theater Center (which runs through Dec. 26), they asked if I had gone crazy.
“Haven’t you had enough?” is their most predictable question every December. Somehow, I just can’t stay away.
Yes, it’s true that I’ve been pre-occupied with the holiday “warhorse” for more than 30 years, and it all started through television. If the presence of a dreamy young Mikhail Baryshnikov with his layered blowout 1970s hairdo wasn’t enough to satisfy a lonely gay teenager, I could always practice my fledgling diva worship on the stunning Gelsey Kirkland. Her performance with Misha and American Ballet Theater is still available on DVD (or, more easily, in fragments on YouTube and even though the staging looks dated, the dancing remains terrific.
If you don’t swoon along with the cellos in the Sugar Plum pas de deux, then there’s something wrong with you.
In my twenties, for seven years in a row, I spent every December dancing in The Nutcracker. Believe me, it’s no easy haul, especially in New England, where it really snows in the winter. Dancers don’t like cold weather, and Tchaikovsky’s score can make you insane after just a few rehearsals, which begin in October. There are lots of little children in the studio.
And even when you’re not in the studio, you hear the overplayed music in every shopping mall and grocery store. In those years I danced all the male roles, though I was always a cavalier and never a prince. I danced as the father, the grandfather, various party guests, both of the mechanical dolls, The Mouse King (a favorite) or just a soldier mouse, and partnered ballerinas in the snow, sugar plum and flower duets, but I never got to put on that huge fake Nutcracker head and smart red-with-brass-buttons tunic to save Clara during her dream sequence.
Not that I’m bitter.
Last week at Marshall’s Home Goods I overheard one sales associate say to another, as she was ringing up yet another wooden Nutcracker doll, “Does anybody ever really use these things to crack nuts?” Both women laughed as I went into a ballet daydream complete with imaginary harp music and blurry camera-lens ripples.
“The role… that I never… danced,” I thought to myself briefly before returning to reality and punching in my PIN to complete a sale.
As a dance critic, in past decades I’ve been more concerned with The Nutcracker as a very engaged viewer. In this regard, no interpretation of Petipa’s classic is ever dull. I’ve seen more than a few updated interpretations, plenty of “historically accurate” productions, and some thrilling re-inventions — Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut and Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! being the most notable among them.
I consider the piece as a kind of litmus test of any great company, so I wasn’t going to miss Houston Ballet’s interpretation this year, my first December living in Houston.
I didn’t want to miss the production, as well, because it’s a rare chance to see Ben Stevenson’s choreography in Houston. With the recent film Mao’s Last Dancer, and my very recent reading of Li Cunxin’s stunning autobiography, I’ve been very intrigued to observe Stevenson’s work. I’ll get another chance in March when the company performs his Sleeping Beauty.
I was mostly thrilled with Houston Ballet’s performance. Like Baryshnikov’s production from the late 1970s, Stevenson has cast Clara as an adult role. He’s done the same with her brother Franz, who is a bit too agitated in the opening party scene, like he needs some Ritalin. The interpretation seems odd when done by an adult.
Overall, there is less of an emphasis on the psychological aspects of the characters. Stevenson has kept the piece an entertainment, and this is a good thing for family audiences seeking a vivid holiday experience.
Since I consider The Nutcracker an opportunity for an artistic director to cast as many young children from his or her school into a distinct part, I found these adult portrayals, as well as the absence of a corps-de-ballet in most of the second act, a little disappointing. That said, the production has a choreographic clarity that is unusual on the contemporary stage.
Houston Ballet should rethink certain second-act scenes, which appear to have been neglected over the years.
The Chinese divertissement, in particular, with two men in Fu Manchu mustaches and skimpy weapons, looks incredibly old fashioned. A strange sculpture hanging from the proscenium in the second act looks like something from an early “lost” Martha Graham dance about a freemason.
There are marvels, nonetheless. What a wonder to see Simon Ball and Amy Fote on opening night in the Sugar Plum pas de deux. The supreme elegance of their duet and subsequent variations made me finally understand why every dancer I’ve spoken to who has worked with Stevenson has nothing but great things to say about the man. Ball and Fote demonstrated the utmost lyricism in these deceptively straightforward roles.
The highlights in this Nutcracker are the three major duets: Snow, Flowers and Sugar Plum. This is where you will see perfectly inspired classical dancing.
With the additional of more dancing from the corps de ballets, and more roles taken by younger children, this could become a timeless, sophisticated interpretation of a well-loved classic.