BWW Review: PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET'S GEORGE BALANCHINE'S THE NUTCRACKER at McCaw Hall
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET Gives George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® a 21st Century Update
Back in December of 2014, I posted my BWW Review of New York City Ballet's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker® on the 60th anniversary of the iconic production. At the time, as an admittedly Nutcracker-weary veteran of performing in or watching versions of the Christmas classic over the years, I dared to disparage Mr. B's seminal 1954 creation as a "musty relic" that had been "dragged out of the attic for yet another season".
Fast forward to the afternoon of December 8th, 2019 in Seattle when I was utterly charmed by Pacific Northwest Ballet's faithful yet fresh production of Mr. B's venerable holiday staple, staged by Judith Fugate with PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal and Garielle Whittle. The ballet, performed by the world-class dancers of PNB along with well-rehearsed children from Pacific Northwest Ballet School, managed to be essentially true to the requisite Balanchine registered trademark while bringing the experience up to date for current audiences with the addition of delightful video projections at strategic moments. During the overture, ably played live as was the entire score by Pacific Northwest Ballet's orchestra under the baton of Principal Conductor Emil de Cou, we were treated to a video that took us through an evergreen forest - a notably Pacific Northwest visual - past a crèche and a village in a snowstorm right up to the front door of a large house. Then, to appreciative laughter from the surprised audience, the video showed mice scampering up to the door and pushing it open so they could enter. This unexpected precursor to the Battle Scene was an inside joke for Nutcracker devotees and a plot plant for any Nutcracker newbies such as young children.
Speaking of children, there were many of them at that matinee, all dressed in festive finery. Knowing this would be the case, PNB created an "Enchanted Lobby" in McCaw Hall. The ample space was festooned with Christmas decorations and offered a dance class, a craft station, lobby entertainers, instrument petting zoos, and photo ops with characters from the show. Little ones could also get a sweet treat and a "Fun Pack" that includes a cookie recipe, a word search, coloring pages, a connect-the-dots page, and the story as told by Peter Boal,
Before the performance began, a recording with the voices of the two girls who share the role of Clara reminded us to turn off our phones and refrain from taking photos. This was a lovely and kid-friendly moment. For the record, Boal's story line calls the heroine "Clara", echoing the Alexander Dumas père revision of the original Nutcracker story by E.T.A. Hoffman even though Balanchine chose to call her "Marie" as Hoffman did. NYCB still uses "Marie", but my guess is that since countless renditions of "The Nutcracker" around the world use "Clara", Boal decided to go with what is familiar to most people these days. He also uses "Stahlbaum" as the family surname rather than the less common "Silberhaus".
The first act is pretty much exactly what Balanchine choreographed it to be, but the unmatched exuberance of the youngsters on stage including the mischievous Fritz made the ballet vibrant and appealing for me right from the start. Another special touch was that the mice in the Battle Scene, presaged by those in the aforementioned video, proved to be adorable - an overused adjective but one that is apropos here. I almost felt sorry when the Nutcracker was victorious! Clearly PNB succeeded in winning over this sometimes jaded Nutcracker audience member.
The second act is a showcase for superb dancing, in particular by the lead Candy Cane, the Dew Drop, and the Sugar Plum Fairy with her able Cavalier. Kudos also to the Angels who glide as though they are on wheels. That's not easy to do!
PNB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker® runs through December 28th. There's still time to get your tickets so you can enjoy this season's offering of the production that debuted in November 2015. And if you're someone who is feeling nostalgic about the previous PNB Nutcracker choreographed by Kent Stowell with sets and costumes by the inimitable Maurice Sendak, you can watch the movie. Not only that, but you can look forward to more of PNB's first-rate performances with a tempting roster of ballets on the slate from January to June 2020. I'm looking forward to all of them, as I knew I would be back when I was still in NYC and wrote a glowing review of PNB's run at New York City Center. Now I'm very glad I'm a balletomane transplanted in the Pacific Northwest!