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The Nutcracker at the Pacific Northwest Ballet: A One of a Kind Experience for All Ages

December 19th, 2010 by Grace Betz

Editor’s Note: This is the first piece by our new arts reviewer and QA resident Grace Betz, marking QueenAnneView’s expansion into covering stories of the arts and culture throughout the community.

We in Queen Anne are truly spoiled to have a world class ballet company at our front steps.  I had the pleasure of attending the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s latest performance of The Nutcracker this past Sunday at McCaw Hall.  PNB’s iconic production reflects the neighborhood in which it is performed—quirky yet refined, modern yet traditional.

Now in its 27th season, PNB’s The Nutcracker is the collaboration of choreographer, and one of PNB’s founding artistic directors, Kent Stowell and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who designed the sets and costumes (in a side note, Mr. Sendak is perhaps most famous for his illustrations in the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are).

Stowell and Sendak’s revolutionary reworking of the traditional story is exclusive to Seattle.  However, PNB’s unique interpretation of The Nutcracker remains one of the most widely recognized renditions in the world.  And in a nation where most of the local ballet companies perform some adaptation of George Balanchine’s choreography, Sendak and Stowell’s version not only captures more of the original story, but does it in a way that is both fresh and engaging to experience.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, The Nutcracker centers around a young girl, Clara, who finds herself on the brink of adulthood, wondering where fantasy ends and reality begins.  A delightful story for both young and old, it is well paced and skillfully performed.  The innovative set dressings are beyond surreal and give the entire performance a pop-up book feel that readily draws the audience into the production.

The live orchestra, as conducted that evening by Allan Dameron, PNB’s acting music director, adds the advantage of real-time flexibility vital for a reactive and dynamic performance.  But what is truly phenomenal about The Nutcracker is its inclusion of PNB’s youngest dancers.  One very well could, over the course of a decade or so, witness the growth of an aspiring ballerina from her role as a soldier to a part in the flower or snow routines to that of Clara.  And the dancers instill their own personality onto the production which keeps each performance fresh no matter how many times you have seen it.  It is perhaps the best and most accurate measurement by which to witness the growth of the ballet company.

My favorite moments included the party scene in Act I, in which there were so many activities occurring at once that it was often difficult to determine where to devote my attention.  I appreciated how it showcased the talents not only of young Clara and Fritz, but also the children and adult attendees and even the maids (who typically, in non-PNB productions, are merely backdrop).  It was a nice change from many other companies’ versions in which each sub-group of performers is given center stage while the other dancers await, and rather flatly, in the sidelines.

PNB soloist Sarah Ricard Orza and principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite were marvelous in their roles as Clara and the Prince.  And guest artist Uko Gorter was amazing as the ever scheming Herr Drosselmeier.  However, for me, the pinnacle of PNB’s The Nutcracker is the Peacock, exquisitely performed this particular evening by corps member Brittany Reid.  Her performance of this unique-to-PNB character was masterful.

All in all the evening was a whimsical delight.  My only criticism is directed towards the universe which seems intent on sitting me next to the loudest child in the theater.  It seemed that as soon as I was truly losing myself to the story, her screams would quickly pull me out and place me right back in my first tier balcony seat.  I must admit, I am ambivalent as to this issue.  I was caught between rolling my eyes and passively-aggressively throwing imaginary darts at the complacent parents, but on the other hand I had to admit that that is what The Nutcracker is for—children.  So be forewarned, the early shows will be full of unruly little ones with their varying tolerances and attention spans.  If you are shrieking adverse, stick to the later shows (use as your guide school nights and appropriate bed times).

Although I am what one may term a ballet enthusiast, I do believe that PNB’s version of The Nutcracker is a must-see for experts and novices alike.  The story line is accessible to even the most irascible of ballet eschewers, yet PNB’s skill and technical precision will appeal to even the most jaded of ballet aficionados.  I do not think there is a bad seat in the house, although certainly being near the center puts the audience member at an advantage.  I enjoy watching ballets from a higher vantage point so that I may enjoy not only the dancing, but the formation as well.  For this performance, I sat in the third row center on the first tier balcony, which was perfect.  I would, however, caution would-be ticket buyers that the seats in the row in front of you are not low enough to provide a clear visual path above a person’s head.  There are complimentary cushions for children so that they may have a bit more of an elevated seat.  McCaw Hall also rents binoculars for a nominal fee.

So whether you are an experienced ballet connoisseur or this would be the first time you have ever set foot in a theater, I highly recommend you experience PNB’s exquisite performance of this holiday classic.  Even with the myriad of issues endemic to live theater, PNB’s The Nutcracker is about as close to perfection as one can get.  And bring the kids because it truly is a performance that can and should be enjoyed by all ages.

The Nutcracker runs through December 27, 2010.  Please check the PNB website or call the box office at (206) 441-2424 for performance and ticket information.

Raised in Texas and Oklahoma, S. Grace Betz moved to Seattle in 2009 on little more than a whim.  An avid supporter of the arts, she studied ballet for nearly 20 years and piano for 15.  She also plays the cello (albeit, not particularly well) and guitar.  After her misguided foray into the field of law, she decided to focus her remaining energy on subjects she actually enjoys, which include writing and the arts.

Tags: Arts & Culture