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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 2, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 49
Pacific Northwest Ballet:

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker is a deep and enriching pleasure
Arts & Entertainment
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Pacific Northwest Ballet:

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker is a deep and enriching pleasure

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
GEORGE BALANCHINE'S
THE NUTCRACKER
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
November 26 matinee
Through December 28


If you're depressed because of the election, if you're in mourning because The Shanty is closing, or if you're perturbed because your cozy old landmarks have been replaced by ugly apartment buildings - despair no longer. Pacific Northwest Ballet has the perfect antidote for Seattle's malaise, guaranteed to lift your spirits and restore your faith in humankind. One performance of PNB's marvelous production of The Nutcracker will delight you so much that you'll wake up the next morning with joy in your heart. You'll rush into the street ready to defend democracy and Mother Earth - or at least ready to take your droopiest friends to The Nutcracker as an act of compassion. Artistic Director Peter Boal's new production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker is a full immersion into restorative beauty.

You get the best concert in town - Emil de Cou conducting the unmatched PNB Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's eternally beautiful music. You get a feast for the eyes - Ian Falconer's witty designs lavishly executed with animations, saturated colors, and a sweet touch of nostalgia. Most importantly, you get the best choreography ever devised for this music - George Balanchine's 1954 production for the New York City Ballet, which has towered over the test of time. Plus you get to see Balanchine's intricate dances performed by the best company this side of the Mississippi - if not the Atlantic Ocean - along with a troop of dancing children from the PNB school who could charm the Grinch into optimism.

Act I begins with a holiday party at the Stahlbaum's lovely home, with dances around the Christmas tree, gifts for the children and - here the story begins - a strange old man, Drosselmeier, who enters with dancing dolls and the mysterious Nutcracker, a gift for his goddaughter, Clara. This is the wooden doll that will come to life at midnight, to lead an army of toy soldiers against the Mouse King and his minions. In Act II the Nutcracker - now a handsome prince - leads Clara through swirling snowflakes to the land of the Sugarplum Fairy. There they eat sweets and watch all the Christmas treats come to life as Candy Canes, Spanish Chocolate, Tea, Marzipan, and Waltzing Flowers. This is the traditional story - the one Tchaikovsky set to music-so it's a wonderful dimension of our new Nutcracker to have Balanchine's choreography match the intentions of the music.

Mr. B created many opportunities to show off gifted dancers, so we see some amazing set pieces built into the narrative. In Act I there are human dolls to delight the onstage children (and the audience) - Harlequin and Columbine emerge from one life-sized box and a Toy Soldier marches out of another. Our enjoyment in seeing real people negotiate the inflexibility of dolls - shown by rigid limbs and fixed gazes - stems from the dancers' skill in using these limitations to create grace and drama, akin to reading poetry instead of fiction, or watching a hurdler instead of a runner. Madison Reyn Abeo and Leta Biasucci's delicate hopping duet as the harlequins, and Ryan Cardea's impressive control over flex-footed changements as the Toy Soldier caused as much wonderment in the audience as in the Stahlbaum's parlor.

Most of Act I is pantomime, however, with chatting adults and rascally children pausing now and again for social dancing, including a march, a gallop, and a waltz. The fascination is in watching an array of little dramas among the characters - boys who tussle and pester, girls who skip and play doll-baby, ladies who comfort a child left out of the fun, or a father chastising a recalcitrant son. Even a creaky grandfather manages to hobble in and join the dancing. Balanchine was a master of the Russian art of pantomime, so his micro-stories all make sense, entertain the viewer, and move the narrative forward.

After Clara has killed the Mouse King by throwing her slipper, she embarks on a journey with her cavalier Nutcracker Prince. The story becomes less narrative - Clara and the Nutcracker Prince are the audience's surrogates, being royally entertained by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her world citizens representing treats from Spain, Germany, Arabia, and France. Now the story is about the pure beauty of dance built around three grand waltzes - the Snowflakes, the Flowers, and the Finale - all of which show Balanchine at his dance-making best. The movement and skill on display in solos and duets is thrilling, but choreographic mastery, in my opinion, is the ability to move groups of dancers across the stage in meaningful, complex, and intriguing ways.

For example, the Waltz of the Snowflakes that ends Act I simultaneously addresses the nature of snow and the nature of dance. It begins with a single girl - in a gorgeous, fluffy white tutu - balancing on alternate pointes to the slow, quiet music Tchaikovsky uses to suggest drifting snow. She is joined by a second girl, then a third, then a fourth, until we have a quartet of snowflakes pirouetting on diagonals across the stage, suggesting a snow flurry. As they move into the wings, four more girls appear in a new pattern, each one twirling onstage in succession to form a row, each in a classic pose bending over their extended pointe with gracefully crossed wrists. This lovely detail characterizes Balanchine's layers of thought - snowflakes together look the same but each individual flake is unique. The joy of snow is in this contradiction which Balanchine exploits as the two quartets grow into four, and all sixteen dancers move in and out of patterns that suggest infinite variety in a building snowstorm. As you watch this, your right brain is registering delight while your left brain is doing the Rubic's Cube of how it all fits together. That's choreography at its best - and it occurs again and again during PNB's new Nutcracker.

This year I brought my two nephews - one eight, the other eighteen - and noticed that both were on the edge of their seats throughout. Afterward, I asked them what they enjoyed the most. The eight-year-old was all about the Candy Canes, and how the chief Candy Cane (Ryan Cardea again - what a guy!) who could twirl his hula hoop under his feet two times on a single jump. The older boy was very impressed - as was I - with what he called 'the Statue of Liberty Lady,' who, under questioning, turned out to be Noelani Pantastico as the Marzipan Shepherdess. She wore a soft green tutu, which, now that he mentioned it, is the color of the Statue of Liberty. I, too, was struck by her wonderful dancing, not only because of her dazzling precision, but because of the graceful way she lowered her leg a micro-second behind the beat, to both emphasize and soften the end of a phrase with the tip of her toe. It was one of those beautiful, individual gestures that defy description, but which give such texture and depth to a performance. Hooray for the Statue of Liberty Lady!

Last year this production of Balanchine's Nutcracker was a surprise - brand new, highly anticipated, even controversial, since many folks wondered if they could love any Nutcracker more than the Sendak-Stowell version that Seattle children had grown up with for thirty years. That question was laid to rest with a cascade of rhapsodic nationwide reviews, and we're now into the next thirty years of our new Nutcracker. This year, as the overture began and the animated journey through a winter landscape took us through the snow-covered streets to the steps of a brightly-lit stately home - and as we laughed to see a troop of mice swarm over the threshold, and sighed to see the animated little girl dissolve into a real little girl - I had that secure sense of meeting a new old friend, much loved and much anticipated.

Don't deny yourself this deep, enriching pleasure - especially in a time of high anxiety, when we need all the stability and happiness we can find. PNB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker is performed at McCaw Hall through December 28th.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet:

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker is a deep and enriching pleasure

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