On a rare day off, I treated myself to a performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. This may come as a shock to some of you longtime readers as I, Ebe-Steve-r Scrooge, have often grumbled about how much I dislike it—or rather, what Nutcracker stands for but to make a semi-longer story shorter, I dislike that Nutcracker is such a necessity in American culture and that so much economic value is attached to it. I’m also not a huge fan of seeing children perform on stage because while there are roles that required a significant amount of technique, there were moments that had me wondering what was the artistic purpose of having mini-people dance with turned in arabesques. More than anything, they invoke thoughts of huge egos, parents flaunting the idea of their children becoming professional dancers, which all comes full circle to money because of course proud parents are going to spread the word to friends and relatives to buy tickets. I don’t blame them (entirely), but there are always people who go off the deep end and develop unrealistic expectations for their kids and take for granted how difficult a dance career is to earn. The bottom line is that getting cast in the Nutcracker guarantees nothing about a young dancer’s future and far too many people lose sight of that.
Okay, so the children thing is a little salty on my end because logically, I can see some value in giving kids the opportunity to be on stage and have a significant, inspirational experience. Dancers themselves are sentimental about it because new roles in the Nutcracker benchmark a step in one’s career and there really isn’t any other ballet that tracks progress from such an early age. Admittedly, I also kind of like that Nutcracker is indeed such a tradition, especially in the US which is a relatively young country compared to European countries with such vast histories that are rich in cultural traditions. However, a tradition is something to look forward to, and yet for many dancers the music can be like a trigger that sends them into Gollum-esque fits of rage or make them want to take up a hobby like aerial skiing where ACL injuries are like a rite of passage. Dancers (or artists, I should say because the musicians are pretty much in the same boat of monotony) shouldn’t be sacrificial lambs for the sake of money and tradition. Ideally, they would look forward to a Nutcracker run, which means performances could stand to be reduced, maybe even—wait for it—every other year! The Royal Ballet doesn’t have to do Nutcracker annually and doesn’t suffer for it, though I’d imagine the uproar in the States would make a biennial Nutcracker impossible. Well, that and limited funding…
I suppose I could learn to accept Nutcracker’s stranglehold on the holiday season, if I could get just ONE consolation prize—you see, Nutcracker is lauded for boosting ticket sales and introducing people to ballet, but by the time the next repertory program rolls around, a lot of people will have lost interest and I would like to see companies make an effort to “strike while the iron is hot,” perhaps in the form of a New Year’s Gala. If Nutcracker gets the pointe shoe in the door, than use a Ratmansky-fied cannon to blast it open! There is a real opportunity to take the audience a step further and introduce them to a style of ballet that will help them learn more about it, instead of meekly saying “thanks for coming to Nutcracker, see you next year!” In my mind, something like a New Year’s Gala would call for bold, symphonic works where virtuosity can be taken advantage of to adhere to a theme of “unleashing the fireworks” so to speak. There would be a great fervor over a one-night-only performance that included a lineup of something like Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Balanchine’s Sylvia Pas de Deux and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and then closing the night out with Symphony in C, which has the added bonus of giving the dancers something to look forward to, instead of a couple of deflated, post-Christmas performances of Nutcracker. So the timing is perfect, audiences go from a classical story ballet to symphonic, neoclassical works, the dancers get to end on a lively note, a savvy marketing department would advertise the limited seating of the gala during Nutcracker to create a buzz, tickets sell out (at least, I’m convinced they would) and everybody wins! It’s genius, right?
Anyway, enough nonsense and on to PNB’s Nutcracker—quite frankly, it’s awesome! PNB’s production is famous for using set and costume designs by world-renowned children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, and I was wildly impressed. It’s hard to describe, but the way the set pieces move and transition from one scene to another is absolutely riveting and gives such a neat glimpse at Sendak’s imaginative vision. The collaboration between Sendak and choreographer Kent Stowell was also a brilliant move as well, reminiscent of something Diaghilev would do, which was to really seek out the great artists of the time to design productions. Act I of Sendak/Stowell’s Nutcracker has its unique moments but is fairly standard in terms of setting up the story, though there is an interesting psychological element to Herr Drosselmeier’s relationship with Clara, as he orchestrates her nightmare first in the prologue with three dolls of the Nutcracker, Mouse King, and Princess Pirlipat, once more in the party scene in an elegant masque variation, and then of course there’s Act II—which in this version is a theatrical treasure. Usually Act II will take place in a generic, saccharine fantasy world but Sendak’s design has elements from the Ottoman Empire and while typical productions of Nutcracker have a hodge-podge assortment of ethnic dances that are sugary themed (e.g. Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, Russian Candy Cane), Sendak/Stowell so cleverly re-imagine them into the Moors (North Africa), Peacock (India), Chinese Tiger, and Dervishes (Persia). As I watched the divertissements unfold, it dawned on me that they intended this not only to be an adventure into Clara’s dreams but with an overlying journey on the ancient Silk Road. I was blown away by the ingenuity of Sendak/Stowell’s REAL concept here and it’s hard to imagine another Nutcracker with so creative an idea for Act II that unifies the ethnic dances so seamlessly.
There is a motion picture version of Sendak/Stowell’s Nutcracker, though before I post some clips, from what I’ve seen there are some differences between the current live production and the one filmed in 1983. I don’t know if the production has evolved over time or if the changes made were specific for the film, but overall I do think the live version is better. The camera editing in the filmed version is kind of a pain and cuts away from the dancing a lot to zoom in on faces, and other things are diminished too like “the tree,” which is this miraculous feat of stagecraft where a small tree unfolds and burgeons like a lava flow into a monstrous version of itself. The timing is slightly different in the live version because the tree definitely gets featured alone, now has blinking lights, and yes, everyone claps for it (as they should—who knows how many stagehands it requires to pull that off!)
Transformation (the Mouse King is completely different in the live version as well, though you can get some idea of what the sets are like):
“Silk Road” Dances:
I was really surprised by the choreography throughout, as there were a lot of interesting transitions and use of little steps. The Masque for example has nothing particularly difficult, but it’s very tasteful and has a lovely baroque quality to it—especially the presentation of the feet. I actually think it’s the type of divertissement that really allows the dancers to accentuate their lines not by physical length but by the imaginary kind, which is far more difficult to get the audience to invest in. The “Silk Road” dances were also right on the money, with the Peacock being the clearly coveted favorite. With Nutcracker being so thematic in terms of freedom and escaping reality, Peacock is actually a crucial role—her solo is this pivotal moment in the ballet because amidst Clara’s fantasy, you have this mysterious, exotic bird being held captive, and it’s a little tragic. Peacock really gives the story some depth that other Nutcrackers fail to achieve which is probably why the audience is so fascinated with her. However, I’d like to take a moment to point out that for birds (and definitely peacocks) it’s generally the male of the species that has the more ornate plumage…which begs the question: how would a male dancer fare in this role? Nobody knows, but here’s a neat video of corps de ballet member Chelsea Adomaitis talking about the role a bit, with some rehearsal/performance footage (the cast I saw had Laura Gilbreath dance it, and I held my breath the entire time! And this is no exaggeration—Gilbreath has to be close to six feet tall.):
Rachel Foster and Benjamin Griffiths danced Clara and the Nutcracker Prince respectively, and I had seen them last year dance the principal roles in Coppélia and if I recall correctly they performed well though I wasn’t necessarily blown away (then again, maybe Coppélia is just a really underwhelming ballet in general) but they were amazing in Nutcracker! That first pas de deux when they woke up in their adult bodies and dance together in this pure, winter wonderland with Tchaikovsky’s score swelling with romanticism? Not gonna lie, I teared up a little. There, I said it. I got all schmaltzy and “emotional”—it truly was a divine experience and they had a perfect balance of youth, freedom, maturity, and regality in their movements. Who knew even I could be de-Grinched?
Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed myself, and really the only things that ended up bothering me were the “Toy Theatre” dancers (an octet of very small children) dancing to the first half of the coda music of the grand pas de deux, namely because the tiny bodies with their tiny, not-so-nimble legs failed to capture the grandeur and buoyancy of the famous melody, causing the coda to just completely deflate instead of create excitement. Also, the writhing toddler (and negligent parents) next to me didn’t exactly enhance the experience, and if you were at a certain Tuesday matinee and heard a child literally shriek from the first tier during “Sugar Plum Fairy” (the solo is actually danced by Clara in this production)…well, one guess as to who was sitting right next to her. Let’s take a moment to remember that going to the ballet is in fact a privilege, not just for you, but for many, so be ready to get something out of it—I know I certainly did. For next year, can I put a “25-and-older” Nutcracker performance on my Christmas list? Another opportunity to sell out tickets I think—pretty sure I’m not the only Scrooge in Seattle!
PS. I legitimately knew a dancer in the cast this year, as my friend’s daughter Madison Abeo was cast in the Chinese Dance, one of the coveted pointe roles for PNB School Students, so a little shout out to her—proud of ya’ girl! I even waited by the stage door with a gift to congratulate her on a good show. Meanwhile, when one of my favorite dancers walked by as I waited, I was so dumbstruck all I could do was manage an awkward smile instead of saying something nice. After my ‘Open Letter to Famous Dancers’ you’d think I would’ve learned something, but the more things change—the more I’m going to avoid my issues apparently.