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Inside Out - Cracking Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker"

Observations from Backstage

by Dean Speer

Deceber 22 , 2010 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

I was in balletic hog heaven. Advised to wear comfortable shoes, we met PNB’s Media Relations
Director and cheerful liaison Gary Tucker, as directed at the Stage Door at promptly 7:20 p.m.
and were ushered into the inner sanctum of the backstage catacombs of Seattle’s opera house,
McCaw Hall, where Pacific Northwest Ballet has been presenting its annual “Nutcracker”since,
it would seem, before time began.

We were introduced to Linny Andrews, who watches over the check-in of each cast member
with steel in her back and a warm smile on her face, and were then given backstage passes,
making us official. Her desk area is also the official post-show gathering place for proud parents
and flush-faced young performers, gleefully greeting each other – including the son of two
former PNB dancers and current faculty members, Alexandra Dickson and Timothy Lynch.

I was thrilled to be invited, even if briefly, to be “part” of the show, although unseen –
fortunately – by the audience. It was quite an interesting ride. How much is done from behind
the scenes, particularly with a production of this scale is truly impressive. Sets go galloping by
at a low rumble pushed and pulled quickly and efficiently by I.A.T.S.E. Stage Crew members
in black running shoes and cued by the stage manager. A giant mouse king [“it’s not a rat!”] is
maneuvered by three husky crew members.

Battalions of wee PNB students line up in orderly fashion to execute a choreographed battle.
There are acres of dancing snowflakes and petunias and lots of man-made special effects,
including paper snow that’s collected during intermission, gone over with a very strong, heavy-
duty magnet to ensure that no metal objects such as a bobby-pin has found its way in, and is then
reused for the next show.

Some pieces of the stage dressing even have names such as those young cast members who sign
their names to the back of “Toy Theatre” each season and even the steeds that are ridden/worn
during the famous battle scene, bear the name of the first child who was cast long ago.

Excited dancers with varying degrees of experience – each following their own pre-performance
ritual, quieting nerves and becoming focused – from quiet moments in a space by themselves to
lightly teasing each other before they come on: “Are you going to be on the music this time?”

I was very impressed by how soloist Benjamin Griffiths came out well before intermission to
limber and stretch – this is, of course, already after the full company on-stage warm-up class. He
then took ahold of one of the shin-busters and did a few careful plié, tendu, and rélevés shortly
before going on as Harlequin in “Commedia” during Act II (“Mirlitons”). This demonstrated
clearly to me one aspect of why he’s a soloist – very focused and disciplined.

We were delighted to have the two principals – the lead Nutcracker Prince and the Adult Clara
– Olivier Wevers and Chalnessa Eames come over afterward to say hello and to be able to offer
our collective “Congratulations!” We had seen Wevers (and he had seen us) before his entrance
but somehow by tacit and mutual agreement, didn’t want to break into his “space” before
performing. I know from my own experiences, that so much of performing is mental preparation
and that acknowledging and respecting this can be critical.

Both executed their respective assignments with aplomb, tact, and good taste. There are two
challenging pas de deux in this version for the leads – Act I where many versions have a duet
for a Snow King and Queen, and then later for the concluding Grand Pas de Deux and tutti coda
of the last act. From the wings, both looked as if they were truly enjoying themselves and each
other’s dancing, supporting each other – more than just the mechanics of partnering, and truly
having fun.

I was struck by how the PNB Orchestra sounded from backstage and in the wings – as if being
surrounded and enfolded by the waves of music. Yet, we were told, interestingly, that the
backstage whispers and quiet conversations could not be heard from out front. It was also fun
hearing the dancers discuss tempi – how one conductor might be versus another or how the same
conductor will vary speeds from show to show.

The only thing requiring an initial emotional adjustment – while easy intellectually – was the
inability to see each dance in its entirety. There are television monitors backstage so it’s possible
to see what the audience sees but, of course, it’s not the same. Each scene seemed somehow
incomplete.

I’m one person who has long felt an affinity for the theatre – it feels like a second home. Being
one of the lucky few to be able to observe a major show from the viewpoint of an insider, was
one that was thrilling, fun, and not soon to be forgetten.

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