I was fortunate enough to attend a seasonal performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, performed by the Houston Ballet and choreographed by Ben Stevenson. In the world of ballet, with which I am not at very familiar, it appears that the primary attribution for a production goes to the choreographer. But to me what is constant, pervasive, and the foundation of it all is the music, and so I call this Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker with no disrespect to Mr Stevenson. I admit that this was my first ballet in many, many years, when I saw a Russian ice ballet performance in college. Just a few words about ballet in general: it is easily one of my favorite musical forms, and it really only recently dawned on me, could it be difficult or even impossible to recreate the original choreography of a ballet? Were ballets written with specific groups or specific visions in mind, as was often the case with concertos being written for a certain soloist? I admit I love the movement in ballet. It is artistry, elegance, and athleticism, and to me it’s just as spectacular as watching a Ryan Kalish somersault diving catch at Fenway Park. To connect the ballet music that I know so well in The Nutcracker with the live performance and dance was really a treat. While I struggle to keep up with and fully appreciate opera, I think I should attend more ballet (but never see the movie Black Swan again, due to its agoraphobic intensity — it’s actually quite a well-made film).
We sat in the first balcony in a packed Wortham Center Theatre, next to a family with a young child. Because this is a very family-oriented production, it was only natural to hear children squealing and being hushed throughout the performance. But the wonderment and delight that was experienced by this young lady next to us was quite amusing: from the Mouse King (ew, is that real?) to the emergence of the Nutcracker Prince (wow, how did they do that?), the magic of the story really came alive again.
Naturally, the performance was beautiful, and I was impressed by both the quality of the set design and the choreography. Granted, I do not have the longstanding tradition of Nutcracker performances by which to measure this one, but I tend to think that most performances will be very high quality. Only the rare, bold and adventurous deviation from the standard Nutcracker or obviously low quality exceptions might exist somewhere, but certainly not on this stage tonight. Our performance was led by Simon Ball as the Nutcracker Prince, Karina González as the Sugarplum Fairy, and the impossibly cute Emily Bowen as Clara. Aside from their excellent solos, I particularly enjoyed the Spanish and Arabian dances and was surprised by a familiarity to even more pieces here than I had realized. I am definitely familiar with all of the pieces in any Nutcracker Suite, but I really do want to get the entire piece on a recording or even better in performance to see it in its entirety again.
For their part, the orchestra performed admirably, though I have to say that I’m spoiled by our excellent Boston-area venues with respect to the sound. Our vantage point was great for seeing depth of dancers on the stage, but I found the sound to have little dramatic presence in the relatively tiny space up in the balcony and around us. Sounds seemed to die a bit more. I enjoyed, however, the percussive addition of pointe shoes on the hardwood stage, which I imagine was purposefully done.
At the symphony, I enjoy most to close my eyes and listen intensely to the music: to me to experience the orchestra is not to see them but to try and listen for their signature nuances. While I had only passing moments in overtures to experience the music here, ballet is obviously demanding of visual attention, but the music is richer for it.
It also occurs to me that I cannot imagine how I would know the names of any of the parts if it weren’t for the program: as far as I can tell, there is no outright mention of the name “Clara”, for instance, anywhere during the actual piece.
We saw this performance the day after Christmas, but since we had all been working tirelessly up until Christmas day, it sort of provided for me the capstone on the best parts of my musical holiday. The sublime dancing, the beautiful music, and the expert commentary really sealed the experience. I’m sad to be missing other Houston Ballet performances, but perhaps I should resolve for the new year to attend more ballet with our excellent group in Boston.