Sunday, December 4, 2011

NUTCRACKER: Pacific Northwest Ballet


Seattle, Washington has a real treasure to reveal every holiday season. In the early 1980s, the director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, a Seattle-based ballet company, decided he wanted to set his Nutcracker apart from every other version of the ballet in the country. He asked the famed author/illustrator of the children's classicWhere the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, to design the sets and costumes for a slightly re-imagined version of The Nutcracker. The result is a ballet extremely faithful to the glorious music of Tchaikovsky, while referencing the darker elements of the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann more than other stagings of the ballet do.

Actually, the least successful aspects of this show involve trying to weave in the rather complicated backstory of the nutracker and his grudge against the mouse king into the production, an effort that includes the addition of a brief opera piece by Tchaikovsky just to allow for more time to tell the story. This awkwardness in narrative can easily be forgiven, thanks to the eye-popping sets, dazzling costumes, and a few special effects I'd never seen before in any version of The Nutcracker. Also, the music of Tchaikovsky never fails to enchant me, and the choreography, by Kent Stowell, is beautiful.

After I saw the Pacific Northwest ballet version and read the tie-in book, the original Nutcracker story illustrated by Sendak, it occurred to me that the narrative of the ballet has never been all the strong. It's simply an excuse to see a big Christmas party, the giving of gifts, a growing Christmas tree, a spectacular battle between soldiers and mice, a lovely journey through a forested winterland, and a series of exotic dances in an otherworldly setting. These are precious images to behold during the holiday season, accompanied by music that is sometimes whimsical, sometimes sensual, often dramatic, and forever linked to Christmas. Whatever the strange story of the Nutcracker is, the ballet just works!

Seeing the sets, designed by Sendak, is definitely worth the trip to Seattle. They resemble a giant, magnificently illustrated pop-up book, complete with moving parts. Because Sendak also created the look of the costumes, colors and patterns blend to create a unified whole.

What's a bit of a shame is that the Seattle Nutcracker seems like a well kept secret. When I told my friends and family that I was seeing the Pacific Northwest Ballet version of the Nutcracker, I had to explain to them why this was so special, and why I would bother to go to Seattle to see a ballet that is in pretty much every city in North America during the month of December. Among fans of the Nutcracker, the Seattle-based show is indeed the most famous, along with the New York City Ballet spectacle, choreographed by George Balanchine. In fact, these two versions of the Nutcracker were both filmed for release in cinemas.

Even though the Pacific Northwest Ballet Nutcracker has toured briefly and minimally, many people who might marvel at its wonders still do not know about it. Perhaps a bigger tour one day will allow Mr. Sendak to share his magical visions with a much wider audience.

At any rate, the option remains to do as I did and make a trip to Seattle. I also enjoyed the Space Needle, the EMP, and some fine dining.

Performance photos by Angela Sterling.

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