Out of the Shadows

When Pacific Northwest Ballet announced last year that 2015 would mark the end of the company’s beloved Stowell/Sendak version of The Nutcracker in favor of George Balanchine’s brightly innocent production, there was uproar from devoted fans. The Stowell/Sendak take had run at McCaw Hall for more than 30 years; it was a staple of Seattle’s holiday season. But PNB artistic director Peter Boal was willing to take the risk—he had danced in the Balanchine version at the School of American Ballet, working with the prolific choreographer in the role of the young prince. In the new version, costumes and sets designed by beloved children’s author Ian Falconer of the Olivia book series breathe fresh life into the show and the dancers are lively with definite standouts, but certain elements of the old Nutcracker are hard to let go of, leaving shadows in their passing wake.

The story is a Christmas classic. Set at a holiday party in the Stahlbaum house, young Clara (Isabelle Rookstool) and her brother Fritz (Dominic Helming) anxiously await their guests. There is dancing, opening of presents and the dramatic entrance of her godfather Herr Drosselmeier (wonderfully played by Uko Gorter) and his nephew (Ethan Arrington). He gives Clara a nutcracker doll that later comes to life when everyone is asleep. After a battle with the seven-headed Mouse King (Miles Pertl), Clara and the young nutcracker Prince are transported through a world of snow and into the Land of Sweets, where various candy-themed performers entertain them.

The overture opened with a video created by Seattle’s Straightface Studios—and it was brilliant. The 3-D animated work leads the audience on an aerial-view trip from the snowy winter sky through a forest, past a train, along the streets of a 19th-century town and up to the cheerfully lit Stahlbaum residence, where a group of plump mice lead them up the stairs and into the house. The video is a fantastic addition, a fitting technical update that received raucous applause on opening night.

The first scene, which builds the story and unveils the vibrant new set, including a 40-foot Christmas tree, is the ballet’s least engaging, less technical dancing and more theatrical performance. Herr Drosselmeier is by far the most complex character, and his grand entrance (with a delightful cape lined in red-and-white stripes to match Clara’s dress) captures a hint of the dark mystery from the Stowell/Sendak production. As Clara, Rookstool danced with a mix of childlike excitement and professional grace, pulling us along into the story with every move. During the battle scene things predictably picked up, minus the gigantic iconic mouse king puppet. Miles Pertl danced the role of the seven-headed villain, while as the Nutcracker Ethan Arrington defended Clara from an army of overly stuffed mice.

Instead of transforming into their adult selves, Clara and the Prince remain children throughout the entire production, their duet in between the battle and the snow scene replaced with Clara sleeping in her bed that moves around on stage until the Prince comes out and presents her with one of the crowns from the slain Rat King.

The snow scene is breathtaking. The scenery is comprised of layers of illustrated birch trees that form a small, secluded cove—as though we’re being let in on a secret. The grace and technique embodied by the corps, as well as the shift in speeds, from slow, floating movement to fast-paced leaps and runs, reflect the fickle, ever-changing nature of snow. 

The Land of the Sweets is every bit as pink and sugarcoated as one can imagine. Once again in this scene Clara and the Prince are still children, so their famous pas de deux is absent, giving more stage time to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Elizabeth Murphy, who was promoted to a company Principal before curtain) and her Cavalier (Jerome Tisserand). At first Murphy’s performance seemed a little harsh, perhaps from nerves, but by the duet she had softened, settling in with a balance of strength and grace. The Coffee, aka Peacock (Elle Macy), while not carried out in her gilded cage, was beautifully danced with dexterity and complexity, as though she was hiding something, teasing the audience with every extension of her long limbs. New this year is Mother Ginger (Joshua Grant), who wears a 10-foot, 60-lb skirt that opens to reveal tiny children who run and jump and dance. Grant infuses the character with vanity and humor, a welcome addition.

Comparisons between the old Nutcracker and the new could go on and on because, of course, they are two completely different productions. This is not the Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker. We may dismay over the loss of the massively growing tree, the Sendakian Chinese tiger or the black-hair, red-suited Nutcracker (the new one is decked out in green, replete with white hair), but we also can rejoice at lovely new sets, the expertly designed costumes, the massive Chihuly star and the new characters. It might take Seattle audiences a while to get to used to the new show, but change can be a good thing, because no matter what version it is The Nutcracker will always capture the magic, wonder and cheer of the holiday season. 

The Nutcracker runs through December 28. Tickets here