A Look at Nutcrackers Past: Houston Ballet Celebrates 40 Years of Holiday Magic

During 2012, Houston Ballet celebrates its 40th anniversary of performing The Nutcracker. Very few dancers have appeared in all three of the different stagings of this work that Houston Ballet has performed. Jeanne Doornbos, a former principal dancer, who appeared with Houston Ballet from 1973 to 1988 is one. In this blog entry, Jeanne shares her memories of each of Houston Ballet’s three different productions.

The Nutcracker_Houston Ballet_Unknown

Houston Ballet first performed The Nutcracker in 1972 in a production designed by Peter Farmer.  The snow scene is featured in this image.

Most former dancers, whatever their post-performing path, never completely lose the feeling of “being a dancer,” even if it isn’t always, or even often, uppermost in their minds. I’m no different, and although I danced my last Nutcracker with Houston Ballet in 1987, and retired after 15 years with the company in 1988, I am inevitably transported backstage each holiday season when I first hear the strains of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful Nutcracker music around me, usually as I am walking down a grocery store aisle. Feelings of both panic and joy rise immediately in me, and for a brief moment I worry if my pointe shoes are broken in properly, if my partner is waiting in the wings, if I’ll manage all the pirouettes in the Waltz of the Flowers.  Phew!! I quickly come to my senses and realize that, back here on planet Earth, I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I can just enjoy the music.

The Nutcracker Program 1987

The program cover for Houston Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker, debuting in 1987, featuring a costume sketch of the Nutcracker by Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heeley.

I felt more than a little geriatric when Andrew Edmonson asked me to reminisce about the three Nutcracker productions that Houston Ballet has presented so far, after determining that I am the only surviving dancer who performed as a professional in all three. He may or may not be right about that, but I know that some Houston Ballet Academy students who started out as children in the original Frederic Franklin Nutcracker went on to perform as adults in the two Ben Stevenson productions, including the current one, first presented in 1987, with beautiful sets and costumes by Desmond Heeley. In fact, when we danced together with Houston Ballet, Lauren Anderson used to occasionally call me “Mom,” to remind me that she had been a party child when I was playing an adult in Act I. So, I admit that I may have a “historic” view.

Frederic Franklin’s Nutcrackerwas being presented for only the second time during my first year with Houston Ballet, in 1973. I’d never been in a Nutcracker before, and was very excited to become part of a holiday tradition. I danced many corps de ballet roles in this version:  parent, snowflake, flower, Spanish dancer, Mirliton. Clara’s family in this version was wealthy, and I remember the women in the Act I party scene wearing elegant décolleté gowns festooned with pearls, feathers in our hair, and lots of jewelry. The men wore velvet tailcoats, and the Dance of the Parents in Act I was quite stately. The uproar caused by the riotous boys (often played by girls dressed in long pants in those days, because of a dearth of boy students in the Houston Ballet Academy) was calmly dealt with by regal parents. In the later Stevenson versions, set in a less formal household, Fritz and his band get pretty wildly out of hand, which is funny and memorable, but surely causes parents of small children in the audience to grind their teeth and shift in their seats. It certainly did me when I began to take my son to see The Nutcracker, though I must admit he loved it, and laughed delightedly as he followed the boys’ exploits.

The Nutcracker 1975_Nancy Onizuka-Mary Margaret Holt-Melissa Lowe-Gloria de Santo_Franklin Production

The snowflake scene in Houston Ballet’s first staging of The Nutcracker (circa 1975), with choreography by Frederic Franklin and designs by Peter Farmer.

The feeling the dancers get from an audience at The Nutcracker is distinctive because of the presence of so many children. Their reactions to the stage action are free and spontaneous, and you can often feel–and hear, if a little one just can’t keep still–the sense of wonder emanating from the audience. It makes the magic of the tree growing, the Battle Scene raging, even just the Sugar Plum rising onto pointe exciting, even for the most jaded backstage denizen, who has seen it all before, perhaps hundreds of times.

The Nutcracker_Janie Paker and Li Cunxin_Photo Jim Caldwell

Janie Parker and Li Cunxin starred as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince in Houston Ballet’s 1987 production of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Ben Stevenson and designed by Desmond Heeley. 

The Nutcracker fields a big cast, and several performances, so that opportunities are created for company members to do more important roles than they would normally be given. Dancing up to these challenges often leads to artistic and technical growth throughout the ranks. Nothing concentrates a dancer’s mind, body and soul like having to conquer a difficult series of turns or become a character completely unlike herself. I certainly found that true for myself, as I was given larger roles over the years, and eventually was cast as both the Snow Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy for several years in Ben Stevenson’s two productions of The Nutcracker. If a dancer does well in Nutcracker roles that have stretched and strengthened her dancing, she won’t be ignored when casting is decided for other ballets, and will be ready for even greater challenges. In this way, The Nutcracker provides a yearly tutorial in pure classical dancing and characterization for all the company members, which has served the artistic growth of the Houston Ballet over the years. It also fosters a sense of continuity and community within the company as dancers observe and learn from each other, and eventually take on roles that they once watched eagerly from the wings.

I postponed my retirement so that I could have the opportunity to dance in Houston Ballet’s first season at the new Wortham Theater. It really was thrilling. I remember making the climb to the highest balcony when we first moved in, and looking down with wonder on the beautiful red proscenium arch, decorated with Texas stars. The dressing rooms were big, the backstage area was huge, the stage floor was springy for ease of jumping, and there was a palpable air of excitement in Houston about the Ballet and Opera moving into a house built especially for them. It gave a solid stamp of approval to those arts that has propelled them forward ever since. The unveiling at the Wortham in December of a new Nutcracker, with Desmond Heeley’s sumptuous–that’s the only word–sets and costumes was the icing on the cake. The previous production had gotten a bit bedraggled after years of service, so it was wonderful to see the elaborate sets for the Party, Snow Scene and Land of the Sweets, and the dancers in their colorful costumes milling around at dress rehearsal. I even had my own mint condition Snow and Sugar Plum tutus!

Jeanne Doornbos_Peer Gynt and Kenneth McCombie_Photo Unknown

Dancers: Jeanne Doornbos and Kenneth McCombie; Ballet: Peer Gynt

I have so many memories of The Nutcracker that come to mind each holiday season: Andrea Vodehnal completing a series of fouettés by pulling in for an astounding six final pirouettes in the Sugar Plum coda; a Sugar Plum (not me!) getting her tiara inextricably and horrifyingly entangled in her Cavalier’s tunic during the pas de deux; having to nervously wait during the entire Battle Scene for the Snow Queen’s entrance while remaining concealed in the narrow space behind the Party Scene tree; Ben Stevenson’s ribald humor about the rather suggestive cleft in the giant plum from which the Sugar Plum used to emerge in Act II; the six-pack of Pearl beer that lay on the stage at the back of the Snow Scene one performance, evidence of a stagehand’s hasty retreat as the scene began to change and he was about to be revealed; the ritual dumping of bags of stage snow on the heads of the flittering dancers as the curtain falls on the last Snow Scene performance each year; the darling little children dressed in their holiday best in the Greenroom after performances; and the slips, spills and mistakes that are inevitable over the course of so many performances. I loved every minute of every one.

– Jeanne Doornbos

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Houston Ballet presents The Nutcracker from November 23-30, 2012. A little girl named Clara receives a magical nutcracker on Christmas Eve, and sets out on a wondrous journey to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets. Featuring breathtaking scenery and costumes by Tony Award-winning designer Desmond Heeley, The Nutcracker is the perfect yuletide gift: the ideal means of introducing children to the power and beauty of classical dance, and a delightful way for the entire family to ring in the holiday season.

Tickets may be purchased by calling 713-227-2787 or by visiting www.houstonballet.org. Please click here to view, print or download casting.

IMG_0075 Charles-Louis Yoshiyama

Dancers: Charles-Louis Yoshiyama and Artists of Houston Ballet; Photo: Amitava Sarkar

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