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pnb: nutcracker—a review

Andrew Bartee as the Nutcracker; opening night was danced by
Sokvannara Sar (Angela Sterling photo)

By Rosie Gaynor

Usually I live on the cynical side of the Christmas Spectrum. Which is why I’m never quite prepared to like Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker” as much as I do. It always comes as a shock to me. It cracks through the shell I’ve grown against commercialized jollity and reveals a world as pretty as a picture book, where imagination seems limitless, where adults can enter made-up worlds as easily and fully as children can.

Friday night—opening night—was the first time I’ve been to “Nutcracker” with kids. May I advise you: Take as many interesting young ones as you can find, because there’s nothing quite like seeing this show with their whispered, wondering running commentary.

I heard one child ask as his family entered the lobby: So, is this a movie or a play? Oh, dear child, it is a ballet and what an amazing art form you’re about to meet!

Actually, the first thing you meet in this perfectly maintained Kent Stowell/Maurice Sendak production is a drop curtain. It depicts the main characters in the Nutcracker genesis story—a complex backstory to which the ballet alludes frequently but refrains (thank goodness!) from explaining in detail. What a pleasure to study this drop curtain as the house lights dim and the music starts. (Alan Dameron conducted on Friday, with the orchestra turning out a light, festive, dainty overture that buoyed the spirits honestly and whetted the appetite for the magic to come.) This drop curtain resembles a beautiful book illustration—a pop-up book, actually, since the curtain splits to reveal first a two-dimensional nutcracker face and then the three-dimensional cubby hole that is Clara’s bedroom. That Herr Drosselmeier’s movements appear to cause one of these reveals adds to the air of magic that characterizes the Prologue and Act I.

The Act I party scene shone with elegance on opening night. The adults, led by “parents” Lindsi Dec and Jérôme Tisserand, bring so much grace and beauty to the simple steps in this section. It feels like blasphemy, but I have to admit to feeling some relief in just sitting back and enjoying these dances that are pretty rather than ultra challenging tours de force. Sure, I’d get bored with a whole season of unrelenting simple grace, but how lovely to enjoy it from time to time.

I forgot how much gentleness the adults use with the younger dancers in this ballet. They make eye contact with them, lean toward them, and do the old acting give-and-take so well. Jordan Pacitti turned in a psychologically compelling and realistic portrayal of Herr Drosselmeier, one that both the adults and youngsters played off well. This godfather was less creepy than I’ve seen in the past. He was a petulant, self-centered inventor who is not so great at socializing with people his own age. I think I met this Drosselmeier in the UW archives research room when I worked there ages ago. You might not see him, though, when you go to “Nutcracker,” since the casting changes from evening to evening. Plus, Pacitti is a creator… I doubt you’d see the same exact performance twice from him unless he were bored or the piece required it.

The young students were especially good in Act I, with Olivia Pingul and Elizabeth Rodacker as stand-outs in the grace and naturalness categories. Eileen Kelly handled her huge role as the young Clara with relish, giving an excellent, sustained portrayal of fear as the set elements begin their terrifying, magical shift from ordinary to surreal. The tiniest soldiers were especially good, in step and intense: very impressive. Their retreat when the Mouse King appears and their subsequent speed-limping offstage were hilarious and adorable and lightened the mood so that we were ready for the next bit of dream/magic.

Hoffmann’s original Nutcracker story (at least as it appears on Wikipedia) is as complex as the proscenium decorations used in this production. The first nutcracker used to be human…but for reasons including Pirlipat and a sausage dinner and an angry Mouse Queen, this fellow became a nutcracker. After killing the Mouse King with a toy sword, he does spirit Clara away to see lovely sights in a palace. It’s his own palace, mind you, and he’s still a nutcracker. Later on, Clara’s love for the toy-chest toy-boy turns him into a human again.

The PNB production skips all this and takes the easier way out: It’s all a dream, one in which Clara turns into an adult and the Nutcracker morphs into a human prince. Folks tend to read more into this dream, but I don’t think the ballet needs to be a term paper for Freudian Psychology 101—expecially not when it’s danced well. Anyway, Clara and the Prince awaken transformed in the snowy outside, confident, clear-headed, and ready to dance a chaste pas de deux which, on opening night, Carla Körbes and Stanko Milov did with so much sparkle they out-glittered the falling snow.

Angela Sterling photo (not a 2009 image)
The subsequent Snowflakes waltz is always a favorite of mine, whether it’s danced straight or with the festive pranks that used to burp up on Christmas Eve and now are scheduled for the final performance. I love the swirl of dancers in unison, those satisfying harmonics of a team really working together. Eleven of the 16 Snowflakes who danced on opening night have been with PNB for two years or fewer; they created more of that team harmonic than I would have expected. The choreography calls for swoopiness, which covers up nicely for the few corps members whose bodies still fall back on that to show grace and musicality. As a whole, the Snowflakes danced their waltz very prettily—no mean feat!—and pretty cleanly as well, with good sense of directionality and the right touch of drama.

(This gives me great hope. The women’s corps, which has had to withstand departures, injuries, promotions, and the loss of Francia Russell’s constant eagle eye, hasn’t had a company style for a few years. It makes sense: if they’re working on a varied repertoire they’re learning multiple styles and not developing just one. That’s how it goes. A few weeks’ refresher course is not going to do the job. (And who would give up our varied repertoire? Not me. I love it!) But there is some improvement. Maybe it’s the hard work they did prepping and performing “Swan Lake” last season? Maybe it’s confidence? Maybe it’s the happy legacy of Val Caniparoli’s not-so-happy-in-my-opinion “Seasons,” which offered some corps women a chance to work hard with a good choreographer. That’s an experience almost every dancer I’ve interviewed has indicated is a crucial bit of learning. It’s funny…I can remember the first PNB performance I saw, years and years ago: the women’s corps was amazing and the men’s corps as a group was…not so good. Can you imagine? It didn’t take very long, really, for the men’s corps to become good, then excellent, then the superb team we have now. Who (or what) is responsible for that change that started ages ago with Russell and Kent Stowell and has continued on apace with Peter Boal? And can we have the girl version of that catalyst, please?)

Act II…goodbye, dark snowy landscape (and writer digression)…hello, opulent scenery. Drenched in color and detail, the drops and scrims and various set elements of this Sendak production qualify as real art, something both adults and children can appreciate. I love the exotic, cartoony luxury of the Pasha’s palace in Act II. Rico Chiarelli’s lighting, which works beautifully earlier in the production, shows us every detail here and contributes to the beauty and the mood.

Stand-outs at the Pasha’s palace? The Dervishes, danced by Barry Kerollis, James Moore, and Josh Spell, stole my heart. They were three tornado-force dancers in hideous and offensive (yes, sorry) costumes cutting across the stage with height and precision and passion. Ariana Lallone’s Peacock won over my young companion. (I think “Nutcracker” is only this youngster’s second ballet…spread over three or so years…and both times she picked out Lallone as a favorite. She’s in good company!) My youngest companion couldn’t get enough of Mara Vinson’s graceful Flora and wondered why Vinson kept running off stage when everybody wanted to see her.

I must say that I got a kick out of Milov in Act II, as he’s retelling his and Clara’s adventures thusfar. What a story-teller! I could actually follow the narrative. Of course he makes a great Prince: there must be a thousand articles about that already written. I won’t even try…mostly because a reviewer friend of mine dropped a fabulous line about him during intermission and I certainly can’t do better! Here’s where she’ll be posting her article in the next few days. Let’s just say that Milov did not disappoint.

Carla Körbes as Clara (Angela Sterling photo)
And Clara? I’ve seen several excellent performers dance Act II Clara in the past, and each one brings something special to it. What did Körbes bring to this role? Well, she found a way to make the choreography make sense. This section does not feature Kent Stowell’s finest choreography: to me, the movement seems completely at odds with the music. Worse, the dancer is completely exposed, with nobody doing bits of stage business that could serve as a distraction. I’m not sure how Körbes made the choreography here work, but I think what I saw was her taking each step as an opportunity to show flawless technique and perfect placement, all the while giving off the elegant-but-genuine ballerina vibe and genially recognizing that there were others onstage. Maybe it’s not a piece that can be danced through but has to be taken as poses? Maybe that’s the point of this piece? It suits the staccato and sostenuto aspects of the music. It worked!

I like to read on quiet rainy days just as much as the next Seattleite. But at some point I need to add color and energy to all the gray, and December is a great time to do just that. PNB’s “Nutcracker” to the rescue!

Nutcracker runs through December 30.

A few links:
Reviews … updated every so often, so check back.

Marcie Sillman’s audition piece on KUOW…listen rather than read if you have time, since the sound helps build the drama.

Tickets…$26-$123. PNB’s site says even babes in arms are charged admission. Hello? Please leave your babes-in-arms at home in somebody else’s arms!!! Also, there are special K–12 reduced-price school matinees…on December 4, December 10, and December 11. Call the PNB box office at 441-2424 for more info.

Can’t afford it? So it goes. PNB put out a picture book a few years ago, with lovely Angela Sterling photos from the production. $28…and you have it for every Christmas. Or, PNB has posted some videos…including the following, which (pardon the pun) cracks me up:

Casting…subject to change, but not to worry: it’s all good.