Houston Basks in Russian Fairy Tale

Faced with the steadily soaring costs of staging new theatrical productions, the Houston Ballet company has come up with a solution: join with another company and thus share production expenses. It proved a good plan last year when its artistic director, Ben Stevenson, created "Dracula," co-produced with the Pittsburgh Ballet.

Now the Houston Ballet has teamed with American Ballet Theatre to produce Mr. Stevenson's new $1.2 million full-length ballet, "The Snow Maiden," which premired in Houston in March. The production goes into ABT's repertoire this month during the company's season at the Metropolitan Opera House.

The Russian folk tale tells of Father Frost's daughter who falls in love with the village lad who comes to her forest and, against advice, follows him. Eventually the warmth of her own heart and the rays of the spring sun cause her to melt.

Handed down through countless Slavic generations, the story combines many quintessential elements of Rus- sian folklore - love of winter, colorful festivals, tragic romance - and it offers limitless imaginative scope for choreographer Stevenson, designer Desmond Heeley, and for conductor John Lanchbery who has woven a rich compilation of Tchaikovsky's scores.

For Mr. Heeley, whose 50 years of international experience in the theater cover drama and opera as well as ballet, this work is his penultimate creation before retirement. His creativity runs riot with scenes, superbly lit by Duane Schuler, of brittle and sparkling glass trees and icicles, a vibrantly costumed traditional winter festival, and a finale set in the sumptuous silver-and-gold court of the Czar, surrounded by multishaped onion domes.

For Stevenson, whose ballets "The Nutcracker," "Sleeping Beauty," and "Cinderella" already grace the repertoires of many international companies, "The Snow Maiden" is a surefire success. He has filled this work with the essence of Russia, offering scenes of rarified classical beauty and exuberant and energetic folk dancing. And he scored yet another coup by asking Nina Ananiashvili, the Bolshoi's prima ballerina and acclaimed international star, to create the leading role of Snegurichka.

The charming Georgian-born ballerina brought to the role a technique as dainty and rarified as Snegurichka's bejeweled and filigreed headdress. Her training in the Russian classical school is evident in the fluidity, musicality, and impeccable precision of her dancing. And here she demonstrates the ethereality, vulnerability, and the humor of the role with her own perspicacious and exquisite mastery of her art.

Her partner was the incredible Cuban dancer and Houston Ballet superstar, Carlos Acosta, whose fireball bravura technique, his space-eating leaps across the stage, and his natural boundless energy combined to establish the role of Misgir with true Russian character. Coupava, Misgir's fiance, was danced by Tiekka Schofield with vigor and joy, showing the role's worldliness in contrast to Snegurichka's innocence.

The second casting was no less commendable. Lauren Anderson, Houston Ballet's black ballerina known for her fiery interpretations of hot-bloodied ballets, presented a myriad of emotions in her dancing and interpretation of the creature of fire and frost. Dominic Walsh danced Misgir with neat buoyancy and with skilful acting. Sally Rojas was a gentle and loving Coupava. However the company is well-endowed with excellent dancers and each contributed to make this fairy-tale ballet a success.

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