BWW Interviews: Houston Ballet Demi Soloist Christopher Gray Talks THE NUTCRACKER
Little girls in their taffeta dresses taking the Wortham steps one by one. A cup of hot chocolate. Another cup of hot chocolate. It's NUTCRACKER season. Sweet! Or rather, bittersweet. This is the last year Ben Stevenson's THE NUTCRACKER will appear on the Houston Ballet stage.
Still, you have some time to create one more memory of Stevenson's version (before Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch dazzles us with his version next year). Let Demi soloist Christopher Gray be your guide. In his interview with BroadwayWorld.com, he talks the ins and outs, the ups and downs, and the pleasures and pains of this year's THE NUTCRACKER.
Is it difficult to perform for an audience full of children, many of whom are unafraid to engage with the events at hand?
Christopher Gray: I love dancing for children. The opportunity to be included in a child's first or early memories of dance - planting seeds that may spark a lifelong love of dance, theater, or the arts - is a responsibility I don't take lightly. I have wonderful, vivid recollections of my introduction to THE NUTCRACKER. At age four I performed as a 'Party Child' with Pacific Northwest Ballet when they toured to my hometown of Vancouver, B.C. I remember being totally in awe of the dancing, sets, and costumes. To be included on the other side of that experience more than a quarter of a decade later really encompasses the transcendence of dance. I find it extremely rewarding to share with children the love, care, and joy I have for this art form . Of course, performing for the younger generation can have its drawbacks as well. I'm pretty sure that the Sugar Plum Fairies keep an informal tally of how many times a baby cries during their variation.
[Laughs] Is it daunting to dance in such a spectacle production? Houston Ballet has plenty of large productions, but THE NUTCRACKER has, in Act II, a crown with snowflake-esque shards of gold emanating from it -- literally, a crown jewel!
Christopher Gray: As a dancer from a city without a large scale ballet company who started his career with a smaller organization, it really is special to be involved in such elaborate productions. THE NUTCRACKER draws more than just the ballet patrons. So perhaps more than most, not only does it have to be danced well but also needs to appeal more widely through its entertainment and production value. I feel that Ben Stevenson's production has these properties. There are oversized chairs that help sell the illusion that the adults are kids, animated party goers, magic tricks, a cannon that fires blanks, sword fights, snow, and even flying cooks in the land of the sweets. All of these elements and many more make this lavish production fun to be a part of. In its final year I dance the roles of Fritz, Fat Boy, Grandfather, Soldier Doll and the Chinese divertissement, as well as my favorite - the Gopak (or Russian) dance.
THE NUTCRACKER seems like team ballet at its finest. What do you think?
Christopher Gray: With thirty-two shows in a month THE NUTCRACKER can be an exhausting experience, but it definitely has a way of pulling us dancers together. Whether it's the Corps de Ballet of Flowers 'cheers-ing' with their fake roses before their twentieth show in a row, older dancers making sure new company members know the make-up and bows, watching in the wings as younger dancers take the stage for their first Snow Queen, Prince or Sugar Plum, or quietly cheering on the veterans as they try to one up themselves with longer balances, double fouettes, and more challenging versions of their variations, we are there for one another. During a time that could easily give way to monotony, we keep it fresh by investing our energy in each other. After all, supporting the people I've spent the last eight and a half years of my life with is just as, if not more, fulfilling than anything I do on stage.
When audience members meet the cast during intermission or after the show, what sorts of reactions do you get? I saw a little girl only pose with a rat after the pretty ballerina underneath took her mask off. I also saw a teenager take a silly selfie with the same rat!
Christopher Gray: I love interacting with the audience members after a show. It keeps me firmly fixed on why I do what I do - the public. Sometimes kids run right in and bowl you over with a hug, but more often they start off a bit shy. They look at you out of the corner of their eye, sizing you up. Usually they work up to throwing their arm around you for a picture as if you're friends who haven't seen each other in a long time. Sometimes Grandma jumps in the photo, she's definitely not shy about sliding her arm around your waist. The thing I hear most is, 'How do you jump so high?' I smile and say, 'Practice' as I try not to think about how much my legs hurt.
Don't let Gray's leg pain be in vain. See Houston Ballet's THE NUTCRACKER. Ballet runs through Dec 27. $29-139. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Street. 713-227-2787. houstonballet.org
For more information on Christopher Gray, please visit his Houston dancer profile, linked here.