Seeing Sendak: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker”
Saturday Evening, 30 November 2013
by Dean Speer
How to theme and begin writing a review piece about a show seen well over 30 times since its1983 inception proves to be a daunting but delightful task. I easily recall how excited fans were, wondering what this new production might look like. It just blew us away – most of the time when we say “new production,” the expectation is usually within the confines of reasonable norms – new costumes and refurbished sets but what we got with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker" was an entirely new concept and setting. It just blew everything else out of the water. There is no other production on the planet that’s even similar. Many are quite good and lovely but most stay within what seems to be a “traditional” outline of story and place. Those who have enjoyed it have come to think of it as familiar and the norm for us, yet it’s hard now perhaps to experience and realize just how different and “wow” this production was at the time. I recall Deborah Hadley, for whom the role of the adult Clara was largely created, being interviewed on television and expressing delight about “no more vacuous Sugar Plum Fairies!”
A very physical production, they hire about 20 extra crew just to run (literally) the quick and truly amazing scenic changes. I remember thinking, “Wow, I could just enjoy watching the sets, never mind the dancing!” One of the biggest changes is that the story centers around both a young and adult Clara (read what would have been the Sugar Plum role) and setting Act II in an exotic middle-Eastern unnamed land. The other is its darker Sendak tone – Drosselmeyer is a curmudgeon; not at all the grateful and gracious guest during Act I and in Act II when it’s revealed that he’s actually the Pasha, he laughs heartily but not necessarily merrily at Clara’s distress and apparent abandonment by the Prince. [Never to fear – young Clara’s nightmare is just that and as she wakes up with a start and goes back peacefully to sleep and the Nutcracker’s giant mouth and teeth come together as the last musical strains sound, bringing the ballet to a dramatic and visually-stunning conclusion.]
It’s a bit unfair reviewing the official Opening Night cast. No matter how many times it’s been done before or by whom, it’s still a lot of pieces to put together into a cohesive whole. My overall sense is that as we move further away from its premiere, the biggest challenge is belief – believing in the ballet, in the production, and the excitement of the unknown and then continuing to instill and perpetuate this wonder. It has to be done with more than smiles and steps. It must be done from the inside, out. As performers and artists, do we feel the magic when we get into “performance mode” and step on stage? How do we bring this to each show, regardless of how many times we do it? How do we make it fresh each outing? What keeps it “alive”and exciting?
There are many ways of doing this. Perhaps sometimes just a little thing may spark and ignite or it may a combination of things. Never the less, it’s that glow and belief that reaches even the most hardened theatre-goer or the novice.
After 30 years, its “now”cast included some PNB veterans as well as many opportunities for the wee set to get their ballet slippers rosined up with experience – from the smallest parts to being part of a larger ensemble and there were many “glow” moments. Any time Kaori Nakamura is on stage it’s lit just a little better and brighter and I hope she continues to grace us for many seasons to come. As the Adult Clara, she was paired with Benjamin Griffiths, one of PNB’s top male dancers and whose dancing is always very clean, clear, and articulate and confident and whose interpretations I always eagerly await. They had a bit of partnering trouble in the Act II coda with its tricky and very fast turns, but I’m sure they’ll settle into the run. With both, they make me relax and give me complete assurance that I’ll be seeing the choreography as intended.
Margaret Mullin had the unenviable task of filling in as Flora for Rachel Foster, which she did with aplomb. I’d like to see her again as she grows into the part, bringing more to it as do some of her colleagues such as Carrie Imler and predecessor, Colleen Neary. Flora is a senior ballerina part, backed by a corps de ballet and while not as exposed as Clara/Sugar Plum, it is never-the-less filled with virtuoso demanding sequences – not a waltz through the petunias. Audiences should really pay close attention to this role as it’s often where the best dancers are to be seen and where the next generation may get a lift.
In addition to the myriad youngsters of the Party Scene of Act I and the Toy Theatre of Act II, plus those filling out the Pasha’s kingdom, notable were Brittany Reid as Frau Stahlbaum, the Drosselmeier/Pasha of Uko Gorter and the exciting Dervishes which always get a great cheer – Ryan Cardea, Price Suddarth, and Ezra Thomson. An opera singer friend of mine who’d never seen the production before exclaimed, lightly laughing that they looked like the Oompa-Loompas of Charlie and Chocolate Factory. How in keeping with the Sendak designs somehow.
We are blessed to have one of, if not the best ballet orchestras in the country and the score was richly played by the PNB Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Emil de Cou.
The sold-out house clearly collectively enjoyed Seattle’s unique “Nutcracker” and left McCaw Hall lighter on its feet and thinking of dancing snowflakes and waving blooms at the start of the national holiday craze of the Holiday Season 2013.