In the music industry artists often release new renditions, called covers, of previously recorded and released songs. Often these are explorations and reworkings of the original material, designed to pay tribute to the original, reach a new audience demographic, and/or encourage the listener’s interest in the artist by hooking them with a familiar tune. For similar reasons, dance companies worldwide add their versions of The Nutcracker to the fray, making it the most “covered” ballet narrative in the dance world. In this sea of re-hashed material, how does a dance company create a variation that will be a stand-out and beloved at the same time? While there may be no concrete answer to this question, Ben Stevenson’s choreography, as performed by Houston Ballet, is an excellent model of this elusive formula.
From the opening scenes, the ballet promises a traditional take on the classic story. Characters file across the stage in 19th century costumes indicative of the tale’s setting. Men, women, and children gather at the Stahlbaum family home, complete with a large tree sheltering imagination-powered gifts and toys, for a Christmas party. Where many established versions have failed in making these scenes come alive for a contemporary audience, Stevenson’s take on the familiar scenario offers an engaging and action-packed opening that resonates, in particular, with families who’ve come to see the show. Long segments of courtly dancing are not to be found, traded instead for vignettes that capitalize on familial interactions and have a look and feel of authenticity, despite a heavy use of slapstick. Children, all from Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy are a joy to watch, and wriggle and squiggle as they’re tossed about by uncles or cousins. Elder relatives guzzle ale, from which comedy ensues. And, with his reserve of slight-of-hand and theatrical magic tricks, even Drosselmeyer, played here as more eccentric uncle than mysterious (and creepy) conjurer, is strikingly genuine.
Not just in this opening scene, after which the ballet’s plot inevitably comes to a halt, but throughout the remainder of this version of The Nutcracker, Stevenson has woven humor and inventiveness into the fabric of his choreography. From the ridiculousness of rotund mice scurrying en pointe, to the nostalgia of Clara chasing snowflakes embodied by dancers in flowing skirts, to the originality of flying chefs with angel wings in The Land of Sweets, this Nutcracker keeps viewers entertained. Even in Act II, which has the potential to become for the audience a seemingly endless parade of divertissement and pas de deux, captivating partnering and whimsical innovations make each section memorable.
Houston Ballet’s performance of this endearing rendition of The Nutcracker is strong and polished. The cast fluctuates, sometimes rotating corps members into principal roles, yet from the level of performance it is clear that audiences will see a top-notch show on any given evening. For many dancers, myself included, The Nutcracker is typically an event worthy of evasion, regarded as a song that’s been covered one too many times. However, Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, delivers a worthy reinvention of a classic that could melt anyone’s wintry heart.
Performances of Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker will continue now through December 28th. See their website for details.