It’s an hour before curtain, and the lobby of McCaw Hall is already crowded with families in their finest, excited to see the show that, for many, is synonymous with the holiday season. This is almost certainly true for Tad Cook, who has been dancing in PNB’s Nutcracker since its inception in 1983. The production is famous for bringing Maurice Sendak’s unique set and costume designs together with original choreography by PNB’s founding Artistic Director Kent Stowell. Tonight will be Cook’s 32nd opening night. Playing a grandfather in the party scene, Cook fills one of the many roles in Nutcracker played by men, women, and children outside of PNB’s official company of dancers. It is an enormous cast who have prepared our entertainment for the night.
Cook meets us backstage—he’s already in costume, and his broad shouldered brown coat is constructed in such a way that instantly evokes the pen of Sendak, the illustrious children’s book author and illustrator who created the designs this production is known for. This is only a hint of what’s to come. As we are led backstage, we are immersed in Sendak’s vivid imagination. Ornate and colorful drawings adorn layer upon layer of set piece, ready to slide in and out of place at just the right moment to tell the story of Clara’s magical adventure. All the set pieces are completely mechanical and operated by hand, Cook explains with pride.
If that doesn’t seem like a big deal, wait until you see the production. The set is just as much a star of the show as the dancing and Tchaikovsky’s famous score. It continually folds and unfolds as if the dancers are dancing their way through a giant pop-up storybook. The sheer enormity of it is one thing, but the set also comes to life—a giant set of nutcracker teeth part to open the show. A terrifying multi-story rat face charges the stage and then collapses in a surprisingly life-like way as it’s defeated. A mechanical set of waves convincingly tell the story of a storm at sea as Clara and the Prince journey to the Pasha’s Palace.
Like many dancers, I have my own personal history with the Nutcracker. While it doesn’t hold a candle to Cook’s run, I did participate in my hometown’s production every Christmas for 14 years. I was in every scene and knew every part, and even though it’s been a decade since, the notes and the steps still haunt me. I still vividly remember the glory of a perfectly executed fouetté, the devastation of a disappointing casting decision, and the feeling of community that arises from 35 people crammed into a tiny studio, rehearsing late into the snowy night. There is something about Nutcracker that invites grand romantic notions, and I sense it here backstage—the feeling anything is possible.
It can be hard to remember back to who you used to be. For me, and I imagine for many who grew up doing it, the Nutcracker is a Pandora’s box of memories, characters, and long ago dreams—a little too close to home to be entirely pleasant. Since I stopped in 2004, I hadn’t felt a desire to see the Nutcracker until this year, when I heard they’d be retiring Stowell’s choreography and the Sendak sets. Sendak’s books played a role in my childhood as well—The Nutshell Library was a favorite bedtime story. The particular way my father read “Sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice” echoes in my head. The slight clumsiness of the illustrations and strangeness of the content made Sendak’s work just “off” enough to be interesting. My familiarity with his work made me less hesitant to see a version I knew would be different than the one I grew up with. What surprised me though, was that this Nutcracker was less unusual than I thought it might be. Sure, a few of the plot details and characters were different than the traditional interpretation, but essence of the production felt the same—a party with troublesome little brothers, a battle between tin soldiers and mice, a beautiful walk through the falling snow, and a faraway land full of entertaining acts. And even though it wasn’t so different, I found myself enjoying different parts of the show than I had before.
I had always considered the Marzipan divertissement (otherwise known as Dance of the Mirlitons) to be fairly boring, but Stowell’s interpretation, Commedia, was one of the most delightful: a playful Pas de Trois with clever fast footwork. Stowell’s choreography seems to be especially engaging in the allegro: the jaunty party scene in perpetual motion, the Dervishes and Moors (normally Trepak and Spanish Chocolate) thrilling with their jumps and twirls, and the beautiful snowflake corps, which swirled, drifted, and changed directions quickly, true to the capricious nature of falling snow.
There were a few moments I pined for my hometown version—most notably the adagio sections, which Stowell packed with so many steps that they were no longer adagio. When Clara and the Prince first meet, what should be a heart-catching dance of first love has none of the tenderness, excitement, or curiosity that fills the music. The Peacock solo (normally Arabian Coffee) is packed with leggy choreography, but intrigue and mystery seem to be missing. The grand pas de deux, the music of which alone makes me tear up, is executed perfectly, but is simply one movement into another. Don’t they know this is a love story? The kind of epic love story that only a teenager could make up? Because that’s what Nutcracker is—the fantasy of a young girl coming of age.
While my teenage heart may not have been satisfied, my adult heart found something new to love in this Nutcracker: the delight of watching children dance. Perhaps last time I saw the Nutcracker there wasn’t enough distance from my own childhood to appreciate how special this is. The children were talented, charismatic, and passionate about their craft. It warmed my heart to see them perform—I couldn’t stop smiling. I realized this is what sets Nutcracker apart from other ballets. Even though PNB is one of the nation’s premiere ballet companies, it still has that community-created feel that Nutcrackers across the country have. People who love and dedicate themselves to ballet, coming together to make something beautiful, whether that’s the prima ballerina, the aspiring student, or the community dancers like Tad Cook.
I’m reminded of my own dad, who jumped into the role of Parent at the Party one year when we were short on men, and continued to dance that role for years after I left for college. I’m also remembering the backstage mom who dedicated herself every year to managing the dressing rooms, armed with an arsenal of bobby pins and hairspray. And I couldn’t forget the technical crew, playing cards in the wings between shows, wearing all black except for the inadvertent dusting of paper snowflakes and glitter. Maybe it’s strange that people choose to come together every year, spending their holidays reenacting an 1800s German story of mice and dancing candies. But that’s the thing about Nutcracker—anything can happen. Family, tradition, community, magic. What could be more appropriate for the season?