For Ben Stevenson's 10th anniversary as artistic director of the Texas Ballet Theater, he decided on something he hasn't done during his time in North Texas: change The Nutcracker.
" The Nutcracker is important for any company, because it's the bread-and-butter show," he says. "So if people say 'I've already seen The Nutcracker,' you need to have some sort of new visual thing every once in a while to entice people to come back."
The show TBT is billing as an "all new production" has been onstage at Dallas' Winspear Opera House since Nov. 23. It moves this week to Bass Hall, where it will run Friday through Dec. 23.
To notice the changes, you probably need to have seen Stevenson's Nutcracker a few times, as the new parts may not be obvious -- aside from the new sets and backdrops, which were a gift to Stevenson from the now-defunct Ballet Florida.
In addition to the sets, costumes and a few "magic points," as Stevenson calls them, there will be some noticeable changes in the choreography. For the most part, the large scenes, "In the Land of Snow" and the mouse-soldier battle scenes will be the same, with minor tweaks.
The second-act divertissements, always a favorite section for the lovers of showpiece dancing, will have some changes, except for the Chinese and Arabian variations.
"I quite like those," he says of those two variations. "[The] Spanish [variation] is new this year. I wanted to make it more classical, so they've got tutus, like in the Don Quixote pas de deux. It's Nutcracker, so I think little girls like the tutus."
There will also be differences in the Russian variation, and with the dolls that come to life and dance in the first-act party. In the past, there has been a Soldier Doll and a Nurse Doll that are brought out of their boxes and dance. This year, the Soldier will be joined by Harlequin and Columbine dolls.
However, there is one fundamental idea that Stevenson says he will never change, and it's one of the trademarks of his production.
"I was in Nutcracker as a child, all those years ago. I always was a little unhappy about the formal [setting of the first-act party]. It was much more like a ball," he says. "It made me think of something more intimate. The one I did in Houston actually takes place in a farmhouse, not in a big house."
He decided that with his Nutcracker, the party scene would always be fun.
In Stevenson's version, some of the guests show up already hammered, and as is typical with Stevenson's crowd scenes in big ballets, there's a lot of stage business happening in little groups all over the stage. There are little conspiracies, quarrels and shenanigans. There's always something going on.
"Sometimes you go to a production and you feel that the people [at the party] don't even know one another," he says. "I like to feel that 'that's a family,' and 'there's another family,' and they know each other. I try to make it a little more human and less regimented.
"I've seen productions that are very formal, like at the Bolshoi, that are very grand," he adds. "It can be different ways, but once I got set in this idea of it being not so formal, that has stayed with me."
Stevenson says his experiences with The Nutcracker as a child informed what he wanted to do with his life, which is why the ballet is performed by thousands of companies in November and December each year.
He also had the pleasure of working, early on, with great ballerinas such as Alicia Markova and Alexandra Danilova.
Think of it as a gateway to ballet.
"You have kids going to The Nutcracker and seeing ballet for the first time, so you want to have something that they can enjoy," he says. "The other thing is that there are kids performing in The Nutcracker, so children see other children performing and it makes a connection there of wanting to have something to do with the ballet.
"I think we have to do everything we can to encourage people to get, not just to the ballet, but to the arts in general."
And for the adults who want to try something completely different, Texas Ballet Theater will present for the fourth year one performance, on Dec. 21, of The Nutty Nutcracker, in which Stevenson and his dancers collaborate to use pop-culture characters and current events to poke fun at the well-known ballet.
That's a tradition that he started at the Houston Grand Ballet.
"On the last performance of Nutcracker," he says, "the dancers would start to mess around. So the prince would come on with a black tooth and the ballerina would laugh. I thought that was unprofessional, but it gave me the idea to make fun of it."
Humor is important to Stevenson, even in the regular Nutcracker and in all of the story ballets that he choreographs.
"Even in something like Romeo and Juliet," he says, "unless you have people laughing at some point, suddenly when someone dies, it's much worse than if it was like that all the way through. Humor is important, even in a drama, so there is an offset."