A Fresh Perspective on an Old Classic: PNB’s Nutcracker

Written by Mariko Nagashima
 
(Photo: Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Andrew Bartee
as the Nutcracker in the fight scene from PNB’s Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker.
Photo © Angela Sterling.)
 With the effects of tryptophan from the Thanksgiving meal wearing off and Black Friday shopping frenzy finally subsiding, in the dance world it can only mean one thing: Nutcracker season. For ballet dancers and viewers everywhere, this time of year brings a mixture of anxiety and tender nostalgia at the perennial restaging of this now-institution of American ballet. In order to gain a fresh perspective on this quintessential production, SeattleDances took a completely new ballet-goer (let’s call him NBG) to opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s rendition of The Nutcracker, and asked for his impressions.
First and foremost, he felt overwhelmed. The colorful, cartoonish sets and costumes by Maurice Sendak, coupled with Randall G. Chiarelli’s splendid lighting and the hustle and bustle of Kent Stowell’s choreography in the party scene make for an impressive start indeed. “I was shocked at how full the production was,” said NBG. “I was expecting it to largely be two dancers on a bare stage wearing simple leotards, and was not expecting all the auxiliary stage effects. I had to force myself to zoom out from time to time because there was so much going on.” This did, however, create a great appreciation for the calmer moments of solos and duets, the first of which was danced delightfully by Maria Chapman and Seth Orza as Clara and the Prince. NBG found that the juxtaposition between the two extremes enhanced each other, but particularly liked just being able to focus on individual dancers.
(Snow on stage! Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers
in the Kent Stowell/Maurice Sendak Nutcracker.
Photo © Angela Sterling.)

All the glitz and glamour, however, did prove effective at making the rather nonsensical nature of The Nutcracker story irrelevant for NBG. (Which is probably for the best because really, how did we go from dancing in the snow, to a golden boat, to a Moorish land with a dictatorial Pasha to entertain us again?) “I wasn’t as interested in where the story was actually going as much as what the next scene would be,” said NBG. “Each scene was such a surprise. I was really more interested in the new characters.” He even cited the effectiveness of Drosselmeier’s character, (played by Uko Gorter) in deciphering the confusing plot. “I could always defer to his character. His stage presence and body language seemed to set the mood for each scene and where it was going.”
NBG was duly impressed by the sheer physicality and precision of ballet. “Physically speaking, I was in awe. I could really appreciate what [the dancers] were doing with their bodies; all the high kicks and standing on toes just blew my mind.” Particularly interesting was his take on the men’s dancing. Though struck by their extreme control and ability to keep “perfect form while doing strenuous lifts and throws,” he also noted the expressiveness of their movements. “I was impressed by the men’s ability to convey aggression and strife while staying in such a rigid framework [of movement]. Even when they were fighting they were still graceful.” The versatility of the art form was heretofore unknown to NBG, and he was impressed by the range of emotions that could be conveyed with such a codified language.

(Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the
Kent Stowell/Maurice Sendak Nutcracker.
Photo © Angela Sterling.)
While the technical prowess of a professional dancer may be striking for anyone new to ballet, even a seasoned ballet go-er would be impressed by the children in PNB’s production. Their ability to perform “without teachers telling them which way to go and to have thousands watching them on opening night was very impressive,” said NBG. “The children were so coordinated and executed everything so effortlessly.”
What we Sugarplum-jaded ballet go-ers often overlook is the fact that for many, The Nutcracker is their first taste of ballet, for better or for worse. With its familiar music and accessible holiday charm, it may feel the least intimidating of ballets to attend. And, as one of the only productions that ballet companies actually make a profit from, one hopes it is alluring enough to tempt audiences to take a chance on seeing other ballets that lie outside the holiday appeal. What ultimately seemed to shine through to NBG was the unmistakable commitment, which the dancers conveyed, to their art. “Ballet is a very refined art, but within that framework there’s definitely passion there,” he said. Though perhaps not hooked completely, NBG said he would definitely see another ballet, proving that for this holiday season at least, there’s one less nut to crack. 
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs through December 27th. Tickets are available at http://www.pnb.org/Season/11-12/Nutcracker/