Monday, December 29, 2014

The Last Nutcracker

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps members in Stowell-Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Stowell-Sendak “Nutcracker.” Really, I can’t. I tried to count them up, but failed. Probably close to 20, but seriously, I don’t know!

I wasn’t in Seattle when this “Nutcracker” debuted more than 30 years ago, but since my arrival here in 1985, I’ve attended performances, rehearsals, auditions and more.

 I’ve watched the show from backstage, I’ve interviewed grown Claras and aspiring ballerinas. I spent one whole performance in the lobby, stalking little girls in party dresses, to find out what they love about this ballet. I even watched troupes of kids audition for the roles of baby mice. (fyi, Peter Boal told me that, in addition to being able to follow a beat, the kids have to fit into the existing costumes).

I’ve had a lot of experience with “Nutcracker.” 

So, I think I have sufficient cred to tell you I have never seen the joint jumping the way it did on Sunday, December 28th, before the very last performance of the venerable Stowell-Sendak production.
Me and my friend Nutcracker
photo by Alan Lande

Fans lined up to take photos with Maurice Sendak’s iconic sculptures; a local television crew cornered people to ask how they “felt;” carolers serenaded the crowds who jammed the lobby before this sold-out show. “Nutcracker” audiences are always festive, but this group was super-amped. Everyone was here to say goodbye.

If you’ve never seen it, “Nutcracker” is a ballet for people who think they don’t like ballet. It’s an all-ages confection, a holiday tradition. Think of“Nutcracker” as a kind of giant dance buffet. Cute kids? Check. Sophisticated ballerinas? Check, again. And, when Uko Gorter tackles the Drosselmeier role, as he did December 28th, there’s even a dash of comedy thrown into the mix.

People come because it’s “Nutcracker,” a way to celebrate the holiday. PNB hopes it will act like a gateway drug. You like this? Why not try “Swan Lake?”

After three decades, Maurice Sendak’s designs have become iconic in our region. As current PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal wrote in his program notes this year, if you grew up with this “Nutcracker,” you associate an “endless row of gleaming white teeth,” with the ballet company and the holiday season. So, it’s something of a risk for PNB to retire this beloved production and replace it next year with George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography and a new design by Ian Falconer. Boal says it’s time to refresh the production; some natives have dug in their heels in opposition. But hey, I didn’t grow up with any “Nutcracker,” so I’ll leave that fight to somebody else. I’m open to something new next year.

Back to this year. I confess it was bittersweet to watch the Stowell-Sendak version one last time. Prince Karel Cruz with his Clara Laura Tisserand were long, lovely and elegant. Lesley Rausch was an appropriately haughty peacock. I always love the Snowflakes at the end of Act I; was it my imagination, or did the stage crew dump a little extra snow on this final performance? It rivaled the annual “Nutty Nutcracker” for blizzard conditions onstage. But, it was beautiful.
PNB Corps de Ballet in the Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Act II has always confused me. Where have the Prince and Clara landed? Why is there a Pasha? Who are all these dancers? Why are they entertaining Clara and her Prince? This time, I tried to shut up my rational mind and just go with the flow of the thing. Chinese Tiger falls on his butt? I don’t remember that happening before, but it was cute. I really enjoyed the Commedia trio of Carli Samuelson, Benjamin Griffiths and Margaret Mullin. They were charming and precise. And what can I say about Carrie Imler as Flora in the Waltz of the Flowers? She can jump and spin with the best of the dancers, and she showed us her powers once again. 
Carrie Imler as Flora in PNB's Stowell-Sendak "Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling

Did I imagine it, or did Imler have tears in her eyes when she took her final bows with the cast at the end of the production? She’s in the midst of her 20th season with PNB; think how many times she’s danced in the Stowell-Sendak “Nutcracker!”

So next year, we’re on to something old/new. Same Tchaikovsky music. Same-ish story. New set, new choreography. As an old “Nutcracker” hand who has to think of a new angle to cover every year, selfishly I’m glad to have something new to dig into. But I confess that when the curtain came down one last time, with 3,000 people on their feet cheering, I was moved.

The moment marked a rite of passage in this city. New hands now control all of Seattle's major arts organizations, from Seattle Opera to Seattle Art Museum to PNB. We haven't seen huge tidal waves of programmatic change, but in a way, the upcoming Balanchine "Nutcracker" is like a shot across the bow. We'll have to wait and see what happens.

In the meantime, let me just say I'm with PNB on the gateway drug idea. If you liked "Nutcracker," try something else. Me? I am practically salivating over the upcoming all-William Forsythe program in March. Bring it on, PNB!
A toothy Sendak Nutcracker, photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet