By Donalevan Maines
Photos by Amitava Sarkar
Does anyone feel, I dunno, anxious lately? The world seems less beautiful? Hope feels so distant? You took Liza’s advice and went to the cabaret, but even that wasn’t enough to shake off the doldrums.
Ah, but have you tried the ballet?
On November 25, Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch unveiled the world premiere of his new production of The Nutcracker, which will play through December 27 at the Wortham Theater Center. “The story of The Nutcracker is one of joy and hope, and it is a delightful tale of a young girl’s journey,” says Welch, who drew his inspiration for the ballet from the 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (German: Nussknacker und Mausekönig) by E.T.A. Hoffmann. “I was intrigued by Clara’s transformation throughout the story—becoming older, wiser, and more sophisticated by the end of the ballet. I was also interested in exploring how the story of The Nutcracker can work on several different levels, for both adults and children.”
Since last summer, more than 30 people toiled around the clock in Houston Ballet’s costume shop, crafting more than a thousand yards of net into tutus, skirts, and petticoats. Their handiwork created six different looks for Clara, whom we first see when she enters her parents’ parlor and is awestruck by an elegantly decorated Christmas tree, transcendent in its beauty. The audience follows Clara as she dances with a magician, Drosselmeyer, and a stern, wooden nutcracker that will transform into a prince.
But don’t let me spoil the story, which is told through dance and composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s abundantly rich score. Enough of empty words and political rhetoric that have consumed us for months on end! “This is a brand-new production with the same storyline and music you know and love, only bigger, brighter, and grander,” explains Welch. “It is unique to Houston Ballet, and has its own special twists. The production reflects where Houston Ballet is as a company at the present moment.”
For example, the new version created a myriad of roles for Houston Ballet Academy students to perform. Welch’s new production utilizes students from all levels of the Academy, with local students portraying children at the holiday party in the stately home of Dr. Stahlbaum and his family, as well as soldiers, costumed animal characters, and others. “We have a very strong company right now,” says Welch, “and I definitely wanted to showcase them in our new production. I was not interested in completely reinventing the wheel with a new scenario for The Nutcracker. I simply wanted to find new ways to bring The Nutcracker’s joy and excitement alive.”
While The Nutcracker is always considered the highlight of Houston Ballet’s annual season and a spectacular holiday gift to Houstonians, this year promises to be extra-special. “Our [new] version is not just Houston Ballet’s Nutcracker, it is Houston’s Nutcracker, and it is going to bring all of Houston together,” says Christian Brown, who is the ballet company’s director of marketing and public relations.
Audiences can especially look forward to seeing a massive Christmas tree in Act I, and Act II is set amongst an array of clouds. The sets and costumes were created by acclaimed British designer Tim Goodchild, who outfitted 45 mortal characters and 237 fantasy characters with more than 280 individual costumes. Artisans in New York City, Chicago, and London spent two years helping bring Goodchild’s designs to life.
Houstonians should pay close attention to scenic details in Act I, as many of Act II’s magical and fantastical elements are grounded in Clara’s reality from the first act. For example, the flowers from Clara’s wallpaper become
the waltzing flowers, the stuffed animals become members of the court, and her dollhouse mimics the scenic design of Act II, which is set in a beautiful “Land of Sweets” where the Sugar Plum Fairy rules.
Spectacle is just one element of The Nutcracker that lures a wide-ranging audience each year, and enhances the excitement of people-watching during intermissions. “Think of it like the Super Bowl,” says Brown. “A lot of people who do not watch football will tune in to watch the Super Bowl, because it is a fun and exciting event that brings communities together. The Nutcracker is the same way, because even those who do not regularly attend shows within the performing arts will come to see this performance. The Nutcracker is a feel-good production that gets people excited about the holidays; it’s perfect for a family outing and even a date night.”
Meanwhile, Houston Ballet performs year-round with a varied repertoire for devotees of ballet.
“The LGBT community is extremely passionate and supportive of the performing arts,” explains Brown. “We can always count on this community for support.”
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.