Cast_A_clara+prince_medEvery December for the past 14 years, the Uptown Dance Company in Spring Branch has staged its own version of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet The Nutcracker. Many Houstonians are familiar with the Houston Ballet’s grand, Ben Stevenson-choreographed version, but Uptown does things a little differently. Instead of the Wortham’s almost 2,500 seats, Uptown has 90. Instead of sitting in a vast orchestra section or a vertigo-inducing balcony, you sit on the actual stage, in a semicircle of tables surrounding the dancers. Best of all, especially for young children, Uptown performs a shorter version of the ballet, running just 90 minutes.

“It’s completely different,” said Uptown Dance’s artistic director Beth Gulledge Brown. “When you go to the Wortham to see the Houston Ballet, it’s wonderful, but you’re in a very large theater. Here’s it’s very intimate—it’s a small audience, sitting at tables on the stage. It’s a very unique experience.”

Did we mention the tea service? That’s right—during every performance, audience members are treated to tea and treats, right at their tables. You certainly won’t find that at the Wortham, even in the most expensive box seats. “You’re sitting at tables, you’re having tea, you’re onstage with the dancers,” Gulledge Brown said. “You’re right there—you can see the dancers sweat. And that’s what people love about it.”

Cast_B_clara+prince_medAbout those dancers: the show features 100 of them, all from the Uptown Dance Centre’s ballet classes, which enroll children ages 3-12, or from the group’s professional performance troupe, the Uptown Dance Company. Any child who has been at Uptown for at least a year is eligible to play one of the many children’s parts in the ballet, like an angel or a soldier, while the larger parts are filled by Uptown’s many talented professional dancers. The company changes its choreography and costumes every year, so even if you’ve seen the ballet before, this year will offer something new.

When asked what makes The Nutcracker so enduringly popular, Gulledge Brown says: “It’s become a holiday tradition over the years—you know, at holiday times, you go and see The Nutcracker. It’s most people’s first ballet to see, and some people’s only ballet to see, unfortunately.”

And unlike other ballets, she said, The Nutcracker appeals to viewers of all ages. “It’s a story everyone can follow, and the music is familiar—they play it in malls. You hear the Sugar Plum Fairy music all the time. There’s dolls, and other things like that for kids to enjoy. It’s age appropriate for everyone.”

The Nutcracker opens tonight and runs through December 13. Individual tickets are $50 and tables range from $400 to $500. uptowndance.org