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Pacific Northwest Ballet - 'Nutcracker':

Thanksgiving and Edith Piaf

by Dean Speer

November 23, 2007 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

While communing with my pecan pie à la mode over Thanksgiving dinner, I realized the music overhead was not the usual holiday fare of Christmas Classics olde and new, but rather the unique vocal talent of one of France’s heroines – its “sparrow” Edith Piaf.  Piaf could rouse an entire nation to its feet.

America is literally on its feet -- for a Russian: the glorious music that Tchaikovsky spun out for our many, many versions of what author Jennifer Fisher describes so aptly in her book, “Nutcracker Nation.”

Few countries have balletic “Nutcrackers” popping up nearly everywhere for what seems like our own tradition – versions that go from the rangy to the truncated, from lavish to pop, and from above ground to below the sea.  One of my favorite undersea versions is where sea maidens emerge from oyster shells and dance with pearls during the ‘Arabian’ music.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version restrains itself to an over the seas scene as the Prologue of Act II – the delightful magical boat ride that takes an adult Clara with the Prince to the exotic kingdom of the Pasha, replete with leaping fish and a dangerous passage through storm tossed shoals.

PNB’s Kent Stowell/Maurice Sendak production has been a Leviathan since its 1983 premiere when it replaced a production by Lew Christensen previously seen at San Francisco Ballet.

Probably my two favorite scenes are the two, big ensemble pieces: Snow and Waltz of the Flowers.  Kent Stowell’s choreography is at its best here – many attractive and ever-changing patterns, use of canon and syncopation, and lots of steps appropriate for the occasion.  Sharp, staccato ones for Snow such as emboité and many turns that suggest swirling snow and wind – which does culminate in a nice blizzard.  In the Waltz of the Flowers, balancés, waltz steps, and leaps for the petunias and for the head blossom, a turning fouetté combination and entre chats.

Who could not be thrilled by the music that accompanies the exciting tree-growing scene?  I got goose bumps yet again.  How fun!

This year’s edition is, if possible, better than ever.  Every scene has been meticulously worked out and rehearsed, with the dancers being very tight in their ensemble.  Phrasing is slightly different than in years past – more push and pull; attacking something, and letting it resonate. One example was Barry Kerollis’ Sword-Dancer Doll – punching a sauté développé à la seconde, and then letting it ‘sit’ for a moment before pushing on to the next step.  This approach is admirable for it allows each step to ‘read.’

We are fortunate every time Louise Nadeau’s Adult Clara and Olivier Wevers’ Prince take the stage.  These are mature artists in their technical and interpretive prime and we are plain lucky to have them.  Nadeau phrases her way through each moment and Wevers work is completely simpatico.  Each performed their solos from the Grand Pas de deux with aplomb.  Chalnessa Eames deserves special mention as the Ballerina Doll as does Carla Körbes as the head blossom.  Körbes is a dance artist of the first rank and her dancing was everything it should be – rich in technique, capacious movement, ample in style.  Eames is fun to watch.  I enjoy her style – within the context of the choreography, we see her embodying the Ballerina.

Others that also deserve mention are Lesley Rausch’s preening Peacock; Dervishes Kiyon Gaines, Barry Kerollis, and Lucien Postlewaite; and Karel Cruz’s wonderfully long legs which took him so far across the stage that he couldn’t quite complete the Warrior Mouse’s choreography on the stage.

This Nutcracker is not all sunny light and goodness, as there is the slightly sadistic character of Drosselmeier/Pasha [Uko Gorter] to deal with.  In Act I, he lets his teasing of the child Clara go too far and at the conclusion of Act II, Pasha whips off his turban and facial hair to reveal to the now adult Clara that he’s really Drosselmeier in disguise – all the while cackling maniacally.  Certainly enough to give one the willies and induce Clara’s nightmare.

As a side note, it’s interesting that PNB’s Costumes Shop reports that the only truly original costume left over from the premiere is the one for Frau Stahlbaum; all the rest have been refurbished or replaced.

Refurbishing himself year after year, and who has now passed his 650th  performance of Nutcracker conducting, was maestro Stewart Kershaw, who this round is sharing podium duties with two others.   The mighty PNB Orchestra sounded great.  It is ravishing to hear and enjoy the visceral thrill of this Russian score played for us by an American orchestra for an evening of top-notch dancing, choreography that is rich, a production that’s wry, urbane and which rouses us to be the Nutcracker Nation that we are.

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