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I have long wanted to see Houston Ballet, and on a recent holiday trip I found myself in Houston with a willing young friend who had been one of the children in a different cast. Intensively focused throughout, she finally said, after my constant prodding, "It was more fun to be in it than watch." I know what she meant, not because I've ever danced, but because while we watched a very well-trained company with a company style -- not to be underestimated -- a group of ballerinas across all ranks with gorgeous feet, and beautiful classical dancing, we also watched a production that was lacking theatrical coherence in the first act. The least successful parts of this "Nutcracker" were any that included a crowd or a corps, where the score was rendered to background music with so little relationship of the choreography to the musical pulse, and the repeated use of the pas de deux form. The pay-off was the series of inventive divertissements in Act II, some pure classical choreography throughout, and the dancers.

Love or hate mime -- not just formal mime ("You. I. Marry. Swear."), but also the simple gestures and characterizations that establish community, relationships, and manners -- "The Nutcracker" has a lot of music for a party scene. A great production of this ballet, in my opinion, is one that embraces the story and reveals social truths within a narrative core: at first viewing, the central story prevails and a sense of place is established; at the tenth, a sidebar glance at the maids, for example, shows how servants become invisible, whisking off a thrown hobby horse, a gesture unnoticed in those first nine performances. A good production needs at least a clear central story, without which the party scene has no purpose and the second half of the act and Act II have no meaning. Resistance may not be futile, but it makes for a long 25 minutes.

Ben Stevenson's "The Nutcracker" starts off well enough, with a girl -- a child dancer -- dressed up and on her way to a Christmas party: she can't wait. Crossing the stage alone, she stops mid-stage and twirls with excitement, and then gestures for her family to catch up, which they soon do. Other families follow, including a querrelous, overstuffed one -- they look like vertical squat giant sausages -- saved by the womenfolk who heft small beer barrels on their shoulders. When the scrim goes up and the lights are on in the party scene after these people gather, there are four small girls among the guests, but what look like adults during the entrances are children played by adult dancers. Not just Clara, danced by Elise Judson (according to the program*) on point, and Fritz, danced by the buoyant Christopher Gray, but also a number of the guests, while at the same time none of them are portrayed as older than the actual children in the cast. Every choreographer faces the choice of how to portray the children; Stevenson, by not choosing, has, essentially, cut the baby in half.

Were there a strong central narrative, the adult children might not be so prominent and jarring, despite the non-social dance roles of the leads, but, lacking one, the party scene is consistently overwhelmed by side shows: an adult dancer in a red wig who plays a brutally nasty little girl, a drunken, lecherous grandfather who at one point tries to run offstage with one of the dolls wrapped around his waist. While the manners don't have to be as formal as in burgher Germany to be effective -- one look at the rigid social mores Mark Morris established in the non-ballet "The Hard Nut" shows this as well as anything -- what is, I suppose, a nod to the larger-than-life, no pretentions, frontier community results in a stage picture in which the inmates are running the asylum, a party where the children overdose on sugar -- fueled by the orchestra, which was playing at a Second-To-Last-Performance-How-Soon-Can-This-Be-Over pace -- and the adults mainly throw up their hands and give up on child-rearing altogether. With Drosselmeier one of the sanest adults around, it was hard to see what in particular drove Clara's nightmare or dream, since its form was rather soft and careful and distinctly not chaotic.

Having Clara as a dancer on point would have strained credibility for many companies who would attempt to show the mice and soldiers as proportionately larger than the "child", but Stevenson put the mice on point, and Houston Ballet has a huge crop of redwood trees among the men, who towered over Judson as soldiers. After the unfocused party scene, the choreography became very careful, and many of the dancers throughout the rest of the act danced very carefully. A sense of menace or wonder in the fight and transformation scenes -- the latter culminates in a pas de deux for Clara and the Nutcracker -- is lost in the most driving and dramatic music in the score.

The Dance of the Snowflakes has a touch that I had never seen before: in the opening Clara dances among the snow flakes transfixed. She is superceded by the Snow Queen and the Nutcracker Prince in a romantic pas de deux, the same Nutcracker Prince who dances a romantic pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act II, a bit creepy, since nothing else in this production is particularly psychological, and there is little of the classical staples of growth and transformation in the ballet that isn't strictly literal. Snow Queen was danced with stunning clarity and authority by Nao Kusuzaki, partnered by Connor Walsh, whose full-bodied, legato dancing was a joy to watch in both pas. Taken by itself, it is a fine classical choreography, but in the context of the music and story, it interrupts the sweep of the corps, sweep that is inherent in the music.

Act II opens with delightful flying entrance of the angels, bakers on point with wings, a stroke of theater magic. The Spanish pas de trois is like a full-bodied red wine and was danced with panache and style by Aria Alekzander, Christopher Coomer, and James Gotesky; the muscularity and juicy plies of these two men contrasted with the tall, lean company physique. The Arabian, which follows, is an inventive, multi-plane pas de deux, from which any choreographer who thinks a sensuous pas de deux requires the women to become a pretzel could learn an lesson or two (or five). Unfortunately, from this point on the orchestra played the score as if in a haze inspired by this musical passage. Tea was the first to suffer from it: a wonderfully acrobatic sword and stick fight for two men -- here danced by Rhodes Elliot and Charles Louis-Yoshiyama -- it was taken at a languid pace, and the blocking was a bit too transparent.

If there is one thing that made the performance worthwhile for me, it was the decision to take the Russian music and move it to just before Waltz of the Flowers; in most productions this piece makes the softer, longer, and necessarily more developed Dance of the Reed Pipes (here called "Melitons") a let down after the tour de force of Russian. After the gentler transition from Chinese, the line and precision of Jaquel Andrews, Jorden Reed, and Joseph Walsh could be appreciated fully. Walsh's role in particular showed one of the intermittent treasures to be found in this production: the simple, exposed, classical choreography that he danced so clearly. Clowns begins with a wonderful short solo for a child dancer; in this production the girl's dancing was as strong her sunny stage presence and charisma; even when she was joined by fellow clowns, my eye went directly to her. The adult clown contraption shows the bottom half of a dancer on point when the skirt was lifted, a nice touch.

Russian is a solo Trepak, danced brilliantly by Jim Nowakowski, who not once broke line to perform his high leaps and turns, and the piece would be a great transition into Waltz of the Flowers, if Flowers could build on it. Flowers demands at least double the eight dancers cast, and the structure of the choreography, interrupting another corps with another pas de deux -- just before the Grand Pas de Deux -- puts a damper on the forward momentum. The costumes for this piece were my favorite of the production: deep, vivid green bodices with red (lead flower) or yellow (corps) petals over matching tulle skirts; the lead flower looked like a luscious strawberry.

The Grand Pas de Deux is an exemplar of purely classical choreography in this production. I have rarely seen a ballerina dance an adagio role with such softness as Melody Herrera. She was a combination of silk and cashmere in the slow, exposed choreography, and she didn't lose these qualities in the allegro coda. I only wished that she had taken on the challenge of the choreography with more shading in her neck and shoulders. Connor Walsh as her partner danced beautifully again.

I look forward to seeing this company again in a choreography that does not work against them.

*Note: only the four leads were printed in the program, with all lead casts by date, and there was no insert with the rest of the cast. I had to hunt down a sign at the top of a stair case, and hastily write down as much of the cast as I could until the bells summoned us back to our seats. I apologize if there were any unannounced substitutions and for those I missed.

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