While it may be controversial to begin the Christmas season so early, I began mine the evening of November 23rd, opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s The Nutcracker. The result of which was a distinct and familiar feeling of jovial warmth—a near impossible emotion to leave McCaw Hall without.
Various candy-inspired photo booths and guests dressed in formalities, ranging from hipster-dressy to black tie, paraded the lobby anticipating the show. The show is inherently a family event, as evidenced by the many children wandering about. It is certainly the least intimidating ballet for new viewers due to its palatable familial storyline; an excellent way to scratch the surface of what can often feel like an inaccessible art form.
Act I opened in an untraditional manner and was not the show’s strongest point. An animated video panning over a snow-scape forest is projected on a screen pulled in the front of the stage. The bit was visually pleasing, but took far too long to reach its final destination, the Stahlbaum’s house, and read a bit lazy.
Once the doors of their home open, the story begins, and the screen is raised. Clara (Zoe Alvarado), along with her brother, Fritz (Mischka Burr-Johnson), are revealed sleeping soundly in the foyer. But soon they awake, and the Christmas celebrations begin. Various guests of all ages attend the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve party. They dressed in muted colors, which contrasted with Clara and Fritz’s garish candy cane inspired attire.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Seth Orza as Herr Drosselmeier in a scene from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. PNB’s production features sets and costumes designed by Ian Falconer. Photo © Angela Sterling.
Later in the evening, Clara’s mysterious godfather, Drosselmeier (Seth Orza), enters with enchanting gifts for all the children. His young nephew, Nathaniel (Jack Kaspar), also joins the function and piques Clara’s interest. Drosselmeier gifts Clara a special toy: a handcrafted nutcracker.
Despite the dark and dramatic lighting, the entire battle scene read quite comically, partly due to the preposterous size of the mice’s heads in regards to their limbs. The mice themselves seem scared, not scary.
In the iconic and memorable snowflake scene, much like an actual snowflake, the dancers moved weightlessly and seemingly without effort. The costumes had a very slight blue tint and tasteful glimmer that allowed them to sparkle like a fresh snowfall. This part was additionally refreshing for the patrons since it had some of the first clear ballet dancing of the night. Anyone who’d snoozed off during the party scene was sure to feel energized for Act II.
Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in the snow scene from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. PNB’s production features sets and costumes designed by Ian Falconer. Photo © Angela Sterling.
Following intermission, Clara and her prince find the stage aglow and hazy. In the technicolor paradise of The Land of Sweets, they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy, (Leta Biasucci), who is electric. Clara and Nathaniel spend the rest of the night sitting atop a throne watching various sweets perform for them.
From this part, it was not difficult to see how the concepts of this tale were spun over a century ago. Many of the sweets were, in fact, very loose caricatures of different cultures. Hot Chocolate, for instance, was intended to be a Spanish dance. In this production, it was really just traditional ballet painted with slightly more dramatic arm movements. The following coffee solo was supposed to be based on Arab culture. While Lindsi Dec employed incredible technique, the peacock-themed two-piece costume was at best confusing, (and at worst, cringe-worthy). The Marzipan and Flowers performance was by far the strongest in this part, with costumes as vibrant as their dancing. Lesley Rausch was especially dazzling as the Dewdrop, and seemed to fly across the stage with near impossible agility. The final Sugar Plum duet was spectacular as well, although Leta Biasucci noticeably outshone her Cavelier, (Lucien Postlewaite).
The Land of Sweets itself is almost over-stimulating in design. Pink and green marshmallow columns support intricate arches resembling doilies. Every costume veers on the edge of being gauche in color and sparkle, especially the oversaturated violet of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the coral-fuchsia dresses of the Flowers. It felt at times as if the costumes were competing with the dancers for the audience’s attention.
I would be hard-pressed to disagree with popular criticisms of The Nutcracker, and of George Balanchine’s version in particular. The costumes and set are almost violently bright, and staging is taken to the point of extremes. The plot is simple, perhaps not the most well structured. But it is a show just as much about the experience as it is about the actual elements. For first time viewers, it remains a magical event and an excellent way to introduce ballet to children, families, and friends, with a spoonful of sugar (plums) to help it go down.