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The Petunias Have it

Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Nutcracker'

by Dean Speer

November 25, 2011 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, WA

The best dancing of the evening came from Carrie Imler and the corps de ballet of “Waltz of the Flowers” in the Stowell/Sendak production of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s perennial and popular “Nutcracker.” Imler is experienced enough and confident enough to play with phrasing. Her response to the music, using rubato to hold certain poses and speed up other sequences gives us exciting and great dancing in the midst of the swirl of complex choreography for the corps of Flowers. Her multiple fouetté turns, sauté, batterie, and double pirouettes into grand rond de jambe were thrilling. She carried the energy and “line” of the choreography all the way off, through her placed and elevated saut de chat exit, during one phrase. I probably haven’t been this pleased since Colleen Neary – who sizzled in the role – did the part many seasons ago.

This corps was tight too, allowing us to see clearly Stowell’s intricate designs. They were together as an ensemble throughout, etching each phrase and shape with exactitude.

A colleague likes to say that he expects greatness, and we certainly got that here.

In terms of functionality, though perhaps not in real time, we’re already one generation away from the PNB School students and Company dancers working with Stowell [and Francia Russell] on a regular basis. This showed, perhaps unfairly, in the opening night cast in some cases where the dancers looked as if they were doing movement they were told to do – and correctly so – but which lacked the inner conviction of understanding. [Now we jiggle our heads, now we go over here and pose, now we do these steps.] I’ve not noticed this in past years, and have to attribute it to this. It lacks the spontaneity of the moment and depth of understanding. As has been often observed in other contexts, “Good choreography looks improvised and good improvisation looks choreographed.” We might loosely interpret this by substituting the word ‘dancing’ for choreography. It is up the artists, or group of artists, to make each scene and step his or her own and to dig into the raison d’etre behind it.

This is an instance where I’d have to disagree with Mr. Balanchine’s admonition to “...just do the steps, dear.” That works if you understand [and believe in] the creating artist, perhaps by working side-by-side with them on a daily basis. It works less well if not. This is why PNB [and other dance companies] will bring in stagers, authorized to set works – as it’s not so much about the steps, as critical as those are – as it is about the intent.

Dance is at best fleeting, and the “shape” of it can get lost or out of focus, inadvertently, in a matter of a few minutes. I’ve had this happen in technique class with my own students in just two or three moments, so imagine the enormous job of putting together a very big production with a huge cast, multiple dances, and scenic elements and music. It’s really quite amazing that sometimes the whole doesn’t fall apart at the seams. Never the less, I’m confident that the ballet will coalesce and “season.”

This is why those sections with the “older” dancers succeeded so well, such as Imler, and were truly great. They revealed to us what this “Nutcracker” was about and their respective part in it.

Speaking of great, we have to mention Seth Orza’s turn as the Prince. His energy and attack of each step and phrase were also quite pleasing, really attacking the double assemblés, whipping through each spot of his multiple pirouettes, and cracking the beats so much, they were audible (whilst in the air). Of believing, he is an artist who believes and gets under the skin of each of his roles. Whatever he may have been thinking or feeling, personally, it very much looked liked he was rather enjoying himself and relishing the opportunity to show his abilities.

One of Maria Chapman’s natural abilities is to light up the expanse of an auditorium and this is well-suited for the part of Adult Clara – her technique superior and clean, with each moment etched in time.

My only fuss for each was to have better worked out the exact gestures, pacing and timing of the miming of Act II’s opening scene on the boat. There were a couple of times where they almost got ahead of themselves, being tempted to point to the water before the leaping fish actually did their thing, and thus having to hold themselves back and re-direct and ending up repeating a couple of redundant gestures. So this cute, miniature moment became a little flatter than what was intended and didn’t quite build as much as it could have. They knew what was coming up, but we, the audience, having suspended our disbelief (even if we’ve seen the production a zillion times before) haven’t seen this magical moment yet. Again, I think everyone will settle into this as the run progresses. Opening Night excitement and high performance energy, and rarin’ to go.

Other highlights for me include the Snow scene which wraps up Act I. This is probably the best version of this iconic dance anywhere – in terms of production values, it’s just plain lovely and Stowell’s concept and resultant choreography really looks and feels like swirling snow being driven by the wind, ever-changing, building to quite the storm by curtain (and Sendak Nutcracker teeth) fall.

As always, I enjoyed each of the divertissements – from the exciting and daring Dervishes [Kyle Davis, Jerome Tisserand, and Ezra Thomson] to the Commedia [aka, Mirlitons] crisply danced by Kylee Kitchens, James Moore, and Sarah Richard Orza. Lesley Rausch’s high extension, still balances, and arabesque turns as Peacock were noteworthy and appropriately exotic.

As generations of performers succeed, it’s fun to note that Fritz in Act I was neatly played by the son, William Lynch, of two former PNB dancers, Alexandra Dickson and her husband, Timothy Lynch [both now on the PNB faculty].

Emil de Cou is quickly easing into his role as Music Director/Conductor of the PNB Orchestra. I liked the pacing and pace he took with the score for opening night. He kept it moving, yet it didn’t seem rushed or too fast – he let it breathe.

PNB has the policy of not loaning this unique production out and for good reason – it’s one-of-a-kind and doing so would tend to dilute the impact – and draw – that it inspires.

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