Dreams Come True at Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker

*note: Principle dancers for the current year may be different than the ones mentioned here, but the scenic and costume design and choreography are the same. This post has been updated to include show dates and information for the current year (see below).

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Many, many years ago I attended The Nutcracker live for the first time. It was performed by a small-ish city ballet company, with recorded music piped in over a loud speaker. I remember enjoying myself, but felt somehow…underwhelmed. It wasn’t the grand production I had anticipated, and Tchaikovsky’s music – which I adore – felt distant and canny.

I had not attended a live performance since, and over the years I’ve always longed to replace that initial experience with something more along the lines of what I had expected: a lavish display of sets, costumes, and talent. And, without a doubt, a live orchestra playing the music.

I was beyond thrilled to finally have that dream fulfilled at this year’s November 25th opening night of Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker.

It was crisp but pleasant Friday night, perfect for being downtown. Event parking for the Wortham Theater Center was only $7, which was fantastic. The theater itself – which I had never been to – was lovely, and I can’t say enough about the incredibly helpful staff.

We had magnificent seats – right down in center orchestra, just 8 rows up from the pit. Despite finding our seats right away, we couldn’t resist the temptation to watch as orchestra members warmed up and tuned their instruments. In fact, many people came and did the same thing, lining the overlook to the pit, watching as we did with excitement as the musicians readied themselves.

I probably had the most fun watching all the children in the theater, dressed up as they were in beautiful little dresses and handsome dress slacks (and even some ties!). I wasn’t surprised to see that – as with most theater crowds – adults were dressed in everything from jeans and tshirts to sequined cocktail dresses and suit coats.

My immediate thought as the show began was an immense awe for the beauty of the set. My husband even whispered a quiet “wow’ once the curtain was raised. The story of The Nutcracker begins as friends and family gather on Christmas Eve to celebrate at the Silberhaus’ home. The house was imagined beautifully onstage, and I loved all the activity and humor at the party. I hardly knew where to look from moment to moment. Each of the dancers were clear in their characters, and although I knew the story would eventually focus on the Silberhaus’ daughter Clara (played in our performance by the darling Emily Bowen), I had a great time watching each and every dancer act out the stories and motivations of their roles.

Herr Drosselmeyer’s life-like soldier toy. From Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, choreographer Ben Stevenson. Dancers: Rhodes Elliott and Artists of Houston Ballet. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

I absolutely held my breath, though, when Clara journeyed with the nutcracker (given to her by Herr Drosselmeyer and now come to life, transformed into a handsome prince) to the Land of Snow. The stark white of the stage, the falling snow, and the costumes of the Snowflakes were gorgeous. And dancer Karina Gonzalez – dancing as the Snow Queen – was breathtaking.

The Nutcracker Prince and Snow Queen Dance. From Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, choreographer Ben Stevenson. Dancers: Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

As we went into the 20-minute intermission, I honestly thought nothing could top what I felt watching Karina Gonzalez dance. I was so glad when she and Connor Walsh (The Nutcracker Prince) came out after the number and allowed the audience time to cheer them both.

The second act begins with The Nutcracker Prince escorting Clara across the Lemonade Sea to the Kingdom of Sweets. As with the party from the first act, there were several traces of humor in this production and fun characters to watch from among the winged cooks (yes, they had wings, and at some points even flew across the stage!).

If there is any point at which kids might lose interest in The Nutcracker, it might be during the second act, when the Sugar Plum Fairy arranges to entertain Clara with a series of exotic dances. I even found my attention drifting as the dancers performed their individual pieces: first the Spanish, then the Arabian, and the Chinese. This might also be some of the most recognizable of Tchaikovsky’s music, though, so there is the trade-off.

The excitement definitely picks up with the Russian dance, and our crowd literally whooped and hollered during – and after! – the gravity-defying moves of our evening’s dancer. (To see what I mean, you have to watch this YouTube video of the Russian dance, performed by the Houston Ballet in 2009.)

Finally, if I believed my affection for Karina Gonzalez’s Snow Queen could not be matched, I was wrong. Just seconds into watching Sara Webb dance as the Sugar Plum Fairy, I felt spellbound. It may sound funny to hear I had such strong reactions to this production, but as I told my husband at intermission, there is just something about watching people who are among the best at what they do, no matter what they are doing, that inspires reverence and respect. And my respect for Sara Webb was immediate. To the annoyance (I’m sure) of those around us, I kept whispering to my husband “Look at how strong she is! She’s so centered! Look at that control!!” It was marvelous.

The Sugar Plum Fairy dances for Clara. From Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, choreographer Ben Stevenson. Dancer: Sara Webb. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

The entire performance, from start to finish, was not only imbued with talent and grace and pleasure, but something palpable and, for me, unexpected: joy. Each of the dancers conveyed such joy, and I shared in that very real emotion and experience that night. And I must give a special mention to the orchestra, who gave their everything and brought the show to life with their incredible performance of Tchaikovsky’s music.

Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker is an experience to be cherished: a feast for the eyes, a delight to the ears, and a stirring of the soul. My greatest appreciation to them for making a dream of mine come true.

Helpful information (*updated to reflect 2014 information and dates):

  • Performance in the Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Street at Smith Street.
  • Age Recommendation: at least 3 years of age (more on age guidelines for children)
  • Shows:
  • 7:30 PM on Nov.  28*, 29,*30* and Dec. 6, 7*, 12*, 13, 14, 16*,  17*, 18*, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23,  26, 27, 28*
  • 2:00 PM on Nov. 29, 30 and Dec. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28,
  • * Indicates discounted performance.
  • Purchase tickets by phone at 713.227.2787 or 800.828.2787.
  • OR…purchase tickets online
  • Groups of 10 or more visit the Group Offer contact form.

*Disclosure: We were given media passes to attend this performance and to facilitate this review. No other compensation was received. All opinions expressed are honest and my own. And it’s true that my first Facebook update after watching this show was: I want to be a ballerina.