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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 1, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 48
PNB's Christmas classic, 'George Balanchine's The Nutcracker,' a work of great art
Arts & Entertainment
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PNB's Christmas classic, 'George Balanchine's The Nutcracker,' a work of great art

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

'GEORGE BALANCHINE'S
THE NUTCRACKER'
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
November 24
(continues through 12/28)

Opening night at Pacific Northwest Ballet's Christmas classic, 'George Balanchine's The Nutcracker,' has become a Seattle fixture in its third season. There is no happier place in the city than the lobby of McCaw Hall, with its audience of excited dance lovers in their sparkling best, and proud parents escorting tutu'd and bow-tied youngsters to their first (or maybe annual) ballet. There are college couples on the best date night ever, and wraith-like ballet students gliding around under glossy topknots. Gray-haired elders navigate the crowds arm-in-arm with grandchildren, and everyone gathers around the magicians performing 'close magic,' or craft stations where kids can make ornaments or see the inside of the Mouse King's mask. Or they're taking each other's pictures at photo stations where you can pose in a sugar-cane house, a magic forest, or under the skirts of Mother Ginger. The biggest, most beautifully decorated Christmas tree in Seattle towers over the entrance as friends meet each other in the dining room or patron lounges, or drink peppermint martinis at the cocktail bar. Gazing down on the happy crowd from the top of the grand staircase is an exciting prelude to entering the auditorium where Ian Falconer's witty trompe l'oeil opera boxes frame the now-familiar scrim with its bright red 'N'.

Who can resist an evening of visual magic set to Tchaikovsky's immortal music? We settled into our seats full of excited anticipation and were charmed again by the famous overture - during which a magical movie swoops us on a voyage in time with the music, from the moon-lit, starry sky, over snowy mountains, into a conifer forest, down a village street to the front steps of the Stahlbaum's stately home. A gang of little mice swarm over the doorstep and into the foyer where two children in party clothes are drowsing, waiting to be admitted to the Christmas parlor with its tree and presents. Who, among those who have seen it, can forget the coup de téâtre when the scrim disappears and the two painted children become real children, Clara and Fritz, who jump up and tussle over who gets to look through the keyhole? I've seen this enchanted moment three times now, and every time it brings tears to my eyes.

This time I was particularly moved that the lovely young dancer playing Clara, Samrawit Saleem, is girl of color - a point that someday will arouse no comment - but that is an important choice to notice in this era of racial sensitivity and insensitivity, especially in the very-white ballet world. After all, Misty Copeland of the New York City Ballet made front-page news as the first black ballet dancer in any major company to be promoted to the rank of principal because her particular aesthetic is finally being valued along with her talent. When you consider that the 'Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker,' retired from PNB in 2014, had white dancers portray 'dervishes' dressed in brown skin suits and curly black wigs, as well as a 'Pasha' in a big turban wielding a whip over a gang of little 'moors,' we can see how far PNB has come in rewriting the narrative of story ballet.

I'm a big fan of re-writing the narrative in any medium. As a poet (in my other life) I re-tell troubling stories with reimagined endings because I'm convinced that if we can imagine it, we can cause it to happen. Clearly the artists and directors of PNB can imagine a world in which a family and their friends are as varied as the ornaments on the Christmas tree or the patterns in the dancer's vivid costumes. As the first act holiday party progresses and the guests enter with their children and elders, we see folks of every stripe mixing together in the parlor - a place I think of as Peace - where conflict is a child's scary dream about toy soldiers and house mice, and where resolution is a happy dream of dancing candy canes and waltzing flowers. If the mix of races drew the audience's attention in Act I, it seemed perfectly natural by Act II. The all-inclusive world of 'Balanchine's Nutcracker' is a world we can see and hope to live in because the narrative has been reimagined and shown to us in all its peace and human richness.

This is not to say that the psychological underpinnings of 'Nutcracker' are not serious drama. They are full of anxiety and fear, threats and transformations. E.T.A. Hoffman, whose story, 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,' is the source of the ballet, packs his tale with dangerous imaginings and edgy characters. Some critics regret the ballet's 'sugarcoating' that they perceive has smothered Hoffman's fantastic drama. Yet this softer story - with its Sugar Plum Fairy, Marzipan Shepherdesses, and cozy Mother Ginger who protects little children under her skirts - has two messages; one for youngsters and one for adults. Little kids see an ideal world full of holiday fun and excitement, while adults see a battle between good and evil, the progress of children toward adult responsibility, and an imaginary world where bravery is rewarded. This double-ness is why 'Nutcracker' can be seen again and again as children grow older and appreciate new aspects of it with each viewing. The test of great art is that you want to experience it more than once - to read it, look at it, hear it, or see it again and again - and 'George Balanchine's Nutcracker,' as presented by PNB, is great art.

On opening night we had a non-stop display of wonderful dancing augmented by the clever sets and costumes. I always marvel at the talent and discipline of even the littlest children, from Adrien Hoshi's rascally Fritz, to Tatiana Lipina's Hare Drummer. The children in Act I performed their reels and courtly dances to perfection, while the little Soldiers, Angels, Candy Canes, and Polichinelles glided, leapt, and danced their complex steps to perfection. Only one little angel snuck a peek and a grin at her parents on opening night - a miracle considering how many children must have been tempted.

The bouquets and kudos of the night go to the PNB dancers in Act II whose virtuosity and perfection was truly awe-inspiring, from the solos of Elizabeth Murphy's Dewdrop and James Moore's Candy Cane, to the heart-stopping perfection of the duet of Sarah Ricard Orza as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier Seth Orza, to the corps de ballet's gorgeous Waltz of the Flowers. Far from being sugarcoating, these dances are visionary - human endeavor at its educated, trained, cooperative, flawless best. A week or so before opening night some of us lucky souls were invited to a rehearsal in the PNB studios to see the original 1892 Petipa choreography of some key Nutcracker dances, compared with Balanchine's 1954 choreography that we're seeing today. I could write an essay on the fascinating differences, one of which was the daring and dangerous movements Balanchine introduced that reflect the development of ballet and the capabilities of today's dancers. At one point, as we watched the Sugar Plum Fairy race across the stage and leap onto the shoulder of her Cavalier, the small audience of guests witnessed one of those scary moments that must happen all the time in the rehearsal studios but almost never on stage, when the Sugar Plum Fairy began to fall backward off the Cavalier's shoulder. He caught her, of course, and they - and we - gasped and laughed all at once - but it was a startling reminder of the physical Olympics we see every time we go to the ballet. They make it look so easy! And yet everything associated with a production like 'Nutcracker' takes years of practice to perfect - the dancing, the design, the construction of costumes and wigs and shoes, the PNB orchestra's marvelous playing. What a feast of human talent and optimism! And what a privilege to have this beautiful experience year after year.

If you haven't seen it yet, you've deprived yourself of a rare and deeply satisfying experience. Give yourself the best holiday present you possibly can and get your tickets before they're gone! PNB's 'George Balanchine's The Nutcracker' is performed at McCaw Hall through December 28.

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