by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
Nov. 27 to Dec. 28
The Pacific Northwest's new production of 'The Nutcracker' premiered on a crystal-clear Friday night, when a delighted audience of dolled-up children and fashionable grown-ups earned historic boasting rights by being the first ones to see this lavish, elegant, and thrilling new production. After years of planning, fabricating, practicing, and polishing, 'George Balanchine's The Nutcracker' received the celebratory premiere it deserves.
You could tell it was an unusually special evening because the familiar McCaw Hall lobby was transformed into a variety of mini-stages for the first-ever audience to pose on, wearing their sparkling Christmas best, in scenes of snowy New England, the Land of the Sweets, or next to a larger-than-life effigy of a rascally mouse - one of the cohort of mice who are central to the story of 'The Nutcracker.' As you strolled through the lobby there was a magician doing tricks by the box office, ballet students on the promenade in bright red tutus distributing colorful tattoos of Clara and the Nutcracker, and, under the mural of 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' in the inner lobby, there were long tables with arts and crafts for children to make mementos of their very special trip to the ballet on a very special evening.
Then, entering the auditorium, you were greeted by a large scrim in the form of a golden frame with an ornamented letter 'N' in rich reds and - cleverly, surprisingly - a deep shade of turquoise rather than the conventional Christmas green. Scenic and costume designer Ian Falconer showed a deft hand at creating cartoon-style visuals (he is the author and illustrator of the popular 'Olivia the Piglet' books for children) while maintaining enough verisimilitude to make the world of a Victorian Christmas, now located in New England, seem plausible and American. We are no longer being offered the mildly Germanic or Dickensian settings that make the Christmas party in the first act seem as other-where to American audiences as the Land of the Sugarplum Fairy.
Aiding this orientation to an American landscape was the fabulous video journey that accompanied Tchaikovsky's overture. This creation, by Seattle's Straightface Studios, swoops us gently from the snowy heavens into a deep conifer woods, over rolling hills and gentle valleys until we follow a railroad track into a town - our program tells us it is the Lennox, Massachusetts of a century ago - and along the snow covered road lined with shops and the occasional horse-drawn sleigh, until we are brought to a gate that swings open to a tree-lined driveway and up to a double front door. A gang of little mice rush up the steps and push the base of the door until it opens magically onto a real entryway where the daughter of the house, Clara, is peeking through a keyhole into the parlor. This optical journey unfolds so naturally with Tchaikovsky's familiar music that we feel as though this must have been the real setting all along. When the mice appear the adults in the audience burst out laughing at the reference to the mouse/toy soldier battle we know is coming, while the children laugh out of sheer surprise.
Balanchine's version of the Stahlbaum's Christmas party in Act I has been around for a long time - I saw it annually when I lived in New York, as have children and grown-ups for the past sixty years - and you can see it performed by the New York City Ballet, Balanchine's own company, on You Tube whenever you like. This new version, however, has the visual interest of Falconer's designs, based on a very small palette of browns, turquoise, and red, and a vocabulary of fabric patterns restricted to stripes and florals. These choices tie the whole visual field together in multiple variations with every costume, rug and wallpaper. And, as ever, the children are rascals, the adults are jolly, and the party is interesting because of all those darling kids from the ballet school who perform so beautifully. Balanchine loved kids, and had confidence that they could execute demanding, graceful movements. His choreography gives them steps and patterns - alone and with adult dancers - that are both satisfying to watch as dance, and delightful to watch as proud parents, even though you're not their parents. I think everyone has an inner parent that wants to be proud of the inner child, which may be why we enjoy Act I of 'The Nutcracker' so much.
I especially appreciated the magical Christmas Tree that grows to towering heights when Clara sneaks back into the parlor to cuddle her Nutcracker. The massive tree makes everything else - the furniture, the toys, the heroine - shrink to mouse-size, so that the out-sized mice are truly scary in a cartoony way. The first giant mouse to appear got a big laugh when a toy soldier dashed forward and shot at him with a pop gun, at which point the mouse stalks off with a hand gesture that says 'Aw, fer cryin' out loud! Gimme a break!' He is joined very soon by a trio of mice who attack the toy soldiers - and even surround Clara on her bed in a somewhat uncomfortable, somewhat grown-up kind of threat. She really does need her toy army. Clara, played charmingly by Isabelle Rookstool, saves the Nutcracker-commander by throwing a slipper at the multi-headed Mouse King - who is more than a little scary, I would say.
Even if we've seen the Nutcracker turn into a handsome young Prince a hundred times (played here by the elegant Ethan Arrington), we never tire of it, and children who are seeing it for the first time will be entranced. A lovelier young pair of dancers you could never hope to see, though their job in Act II is to watch as an army of PNB principals, soloists and corps de ballet delight them (and us) with the classic array of dances to feast on: Spanish hot chocolate, Arabian coffee, Chinese tea, marzipan shepherdesses, dancing candy canes and a big 'Mother Ginger' with a gang of little 'Polichinelles' ('punch' as in 'Punch and Judy' - I wonder if we get the drink from that reference?) What a pleasure to see these dances performed in the spirit that Tchaikovsky wrote them, with castanets matched up with Spanish dancers, a sinuous oboe matched up with the Arabian dancer, and so on. Emil de Cou and the brilliant PNB orchestra do every dance justice, while violin soloist Michael Jinsoo Lim plays a mesmerizing interlude as scenes change.
Especially wonderful were Balanchine's large-scale dances - the Snowflakes that ended Act I, and the Flowers, led by Laura Tisserand as the Dewdrop, in Act II. Balanchine is renowned for his ability to weave large groups of dancers into ever-changing patterns that fascinate even as they delight the viewer. He knew that beauty, far from being simple, consists of complex patterns made coherent, like music. The lovely costumes - flowers in layers of petals, snowflakes in ice-blue and gray tulle, and even a float of little golden angels whose tiny steps made them appear to be on wheels - merged with the choreography and the music to make theater magic. Special mention goes to the Sugar Plum Fairy, Elizabeth Murphy, whose lovely precision demonstrated why she was promoted from soloist to principal on that very night.
Oh, and did I mention the spectacular Dale Chihuly golden star that shines over the proceedings? Or the spectacular sled with galloping reindeer that carries Clara and the Nutcracker prince through the air to wherever child royalty live? I had chills up my spine and tears in my eyes more than once during this fabulous evening, and I feel privileged to be among the first to see PNB's marvelous production of a great classic. I know that many thousands will follow over many, many years, but if you want to see 'George Balanchine's The Nutcracker' while it's in its bright, spanking, flawless new costumes and sets, give yourself a special treat this season. Seattle is becoming a great city, and it now has a 'Nutcracker' worthy of its distinguished Pacific Northwest Ballet Company.
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