Pacific Northwest Ballet: A tale of two Nutcrackers in Seattle

Featured image: The curtain and stage inside McCaw Hall in Seattle for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker, choreographed by George Balanchine with set and costume designs by Ian Falconer. Olivia the Pig, Falconer’s famous children’s book character, sits in the balcony on the left.

Photos by Cheryl Landes

I confess, I’m torn. The third season of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker ended last month, but I still miss the original version.

Don’t get me wrong: The new production is outstanding.

PNB’s new production uses George Balanchine’s choreography and sets and costumes designed by Ian Falconer, best known as the author of a children’s book series featuring Olivia, a cultured pig. PNB’s original version was a coming-of-age story.

I miss the grown-up Clara.

When Stowell and his wife, Francia Russell, became the Founding Artistic Directors of the PNB in 1977, they wanted to transform the fledgling ballet company into something much bigger. To achieve that goal, they decided to create a holiday production that distinguished PNB from all national ballet companies.

They chose The Nutcracker and approached children’s book illustrator and author Maurice Sendak about designing the sets and costumes. Stowell, who was also PNB’s principal choreographer, would compose the dances.

Sendak seemed reluctant at first. In an interview with NPR, Stowell recalled Sendak saying, “Well, I don’t even like ballet,” and thinking that the typical Nutcracker story was too cute. Sendak preferred real things, “like monsters and children that cry and make demands,” Stowell said.

Stowell convinced Sendak to collaborate. They started by closely studying the original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, published in 1816 by German author E.T.A. Hoffman. They created a story about the trials and tribulations of growing up choreographed to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s timeless Nutcracker score. Sendak’s set and costume designs were inspired by his famous book, Where the Wild Things Are.

Stowell-Sendak’s Nutcracker premiered on December 13, 1983 and filled McCaw Hall in Seattle to 99% capacity. It was a story children and adults could relate to.

Their story begins with Clara asleep in her room late afternoon on Christmas Eve in Nuremburg, Germany. She dreams that her godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, appears and gives her three small figurines that act out a frightening story. She sees a nutcracker protecting a princess from a mouse king’s advances. The nutcracker loses the fight, and the mouse king bites the princess, turning her into an ugly girl. Clara awakens, startled from her dream. Her nurse rushes into her room to help her dress for her family’s annual Christmas party, which started already.

Drosselmeier arrives at the Christmas party with two life-sized dolls, a ballerina and sword dancer. Clara is fascinated with the ballerina and wants Drosselmeier to give it to her. He refuses. Instead, he produces the three figures from Clara’s dream in a masque, which scares Clara and makes her want to run away. Drosselmeier comforts her by giving her a nutcracker, which Clara loves. She dances with it until her brother, Fritz, grabs it and breaks its arm. Drosselmeier repairs the nutcracker with a bandage and consoles Clara.

After the party when the family falls asleep, the mice make themselves comfortable in the drawing room. Clara rises from bed to find her nutcracker and trips over a baby mouse. The mouse’s mother panics and calls the other mice. All of the objects in the room begin to grow, and a nutcracker jumps out of a jack-in-the box. An army of toy soldiers appear, and the nutcracker leads them to battle against the mice. The nutcracker and Mouse King fight a duel, and when Clara believes the nutcracker will be defeated, she magically kills the Mouse King with her shoe.

Suddenly Clara is transformed into a beautiful young woman and the nutcracker turns into a handsome prince. Together they leave for the Land of Snow, where they dance together with twirling snowflakes.

The second act begins with Clara and her prince aboard a golden boat, sailing through a magical land. They dock at an exotic port, where the Grand Pasha welcomes them. The prince tells the story of the battle, and Clara is praised for her brave deed.

The Pasha, who reminds Clara of Drosselmeyer, brings groups of dancers to entertain her and the prince, his honored guests. Among them are a peacock, Moorish couples, a Chinese tiger and his attendants whirling dervishes, and a girl dancing a waltz. Clara and the prince thank everyone for their hospitality by dancing a romantic pas de deux.

At the height of the festivities, the golden boat returns, beckoning Clara and the prince to continue their journey. Clara is reluctant to leave, and while she lingers, the Pasha sends the boat on without her. She awakes in her bed and wonders whether her adventure was a dream or is real.

Images from displays in the McCaw Hall lobby in Seattle. Top row, from left to right: Herr Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, and the Mouse King from the Stowell-Sendak production of The Nutcracker. Bottom left: Mice illustrated by Sendak dance around a Christmas tree in the lobby. Bottom right: Mother Ginger, designed by Ian Falconer in the current production.

Sendak died on May 8, 2012, and the production continued in Seattle. Then, in 2014, current Artistic Director Peter Boal announced that the curtain would close on the Stowell-Sendak production at the end of the holiday season. Boal wanted to bring Ballanchine’s version of The Nutcracker to Seattle. PNB received rights to Ballanchine’s choreography, and Falconer designed the sets and costumes.

The new production premiered on November 27, 2015. It begins with an animated video projected on the stage curtain while the orchestra plays the opening score. The audience sees an aerial view of a steam train speeding through a snow-covered forested landscape in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. SELRES_cfc57883-30ac-4c4e-b641-d64e6caf1b84SELRES_482c64cb-8985-4017-94b2-5f4f4e7b90baSELRES_482c64cb-8985-4017-94b2-5f4f4e7b90baSELRES_cfc57883-30ac-4c4e-b641-d64e6caf1b84Big flakes fall as the train travels. Then the camera zooms in on a Victorian mansion, and the video fades as the curtain rises to the foyer of the Stahlbaum’s home, where Clara and her brother, Fritz, impatiently await the holiday celebration to start.

(The description on PNB’s website places the setting from the video in New England, but based on my experiences traveling there, I believe it’s in the Berkshires. The scenery and homes remind me of Lenox, the home of Tanglewood, and the surrounding communities.)

During the party, Clara receives a nutcracker as a Christmas gift from Herr Drosselmeyer, her godfather. After everyone leaves and the family falls asleep, Clara gets up and retrieves the nutcracker from under the tree. The battle between the mice and toy soldiers start, and the Mouse King dies in a duel with the nutcracker. The nutcracker is hurt but recovers and leads Clara through a magical forest, where an ancient spell breaks and turns the nutcracker into a prince.

From there, Clara and the prince sail to the Land of the Sweets in a boat made from a walnut shell. The Sugar Plum Fairy welcomes them and asks the prince to tell the story of the battle. Everyone is impressed by the prince’s bravery, and in return, they host a celebration with dancers representing various treats. The Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier perform a pas de deux. Clara and the prince say farewell, board a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and fly away.

The PNB’s new version of The Nutcracker is beautifully choreographed and executed. Falconer uses bright colors in his set and costume designs, and his choices of color combinations enhance the scenes without distraction. They also helped guide the eye to featured characters at any given time. For example, during the party, Clara wears a dress with bright, thick red and white horizontal stripes. When she dances in joy after Drosselmeyer gives the nutcracker to her, the colors in her dress draw the audience’s eyes to her performance while the other characters on stage watch.

So, I like the new production, but I’m still torn.

There’s a saying that “all good things must come to an end.” Maybe, after 31 years of the grown-up Clara on stage, it’s time for her to live her adult life happily ever after. I will always miss her, but I wish her well and hope that one day, we’ll meet again.

In the meantime, I can be a big kid and enjoy a new Nutcracker with Olivia the Pig.

PNB’s production of The Nutcracker runs from the day after Thanksgiving through late December at McCall Hall, 321 Mercer Street, on the north side of the Seattle Center (get more information and buy tickets).

The closest parking is available at the Mercer Street Garage, across the street from McCaw Hall. (find more parking options).

With the ongoing road construction and traffic congestion in the area, I recommend public transit. The Monorail and several King County Metro buses stop near McCaw Hall.

How do young ballerinas land a role of Clara in the Nutcracker? Find out in this article from the Seattle Times.

It takes 130 hours to create one costume for the Nutcracker. Take a peek into the world of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s costume shop as it makes and maintains costumes for 200 dancers.

One thought on “Pacific Northwest Ballet: A tale of two Nutcrackers in Seattle

  1. I tried to be a big kid and try Falconer and I can say decisively that Sendak’s version captures the magic so much better.
    Unfortunately, the decision to paint the mice in decidedly moorish tones plays very poorly with todays political climate. I never was under the delusion that Boal or the PNB board would show any spine in preserving Sendak’s work…. But I do miss it.


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