Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Through a Looking Glass

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"
photo by Angela Sterling
I walked into a parallel universe as soon as I came through the McCaw Hall doors on the opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.” 

An hour before show time, and the lobby was already crammed; families posed in little scenes culled from the fanciful sets Ian Falconer designed for this production in 2015. Actors and magicians worked the crowd. Little girls twirled madly in their new holiday finery.

The energy was so palpable I felt like I was at the start of a marathon race. And in a way, I was. This November 24th opening was the first of 30+ PNB performances of this holiday classic.
A scary Mouse King fights the Nutcracker in PNB's version of the holiday classic
photo by Angela Sterling
I had planned to write a a learned screed about the Nutcracker’s history; how the legendary Marius Petipa conceived it in 1892, inspired by the French version of a German folktale (although most of the choreography was created by Petipa’s assistant, Lev Ivanov).

I was curious why this particular story, this particular ballet, has become so beloved. It really wasn't intended to endure the way it has.

According to PNB’s resident dance historian Doug Fullington, composer Peter Tchaikovsky was less than thrilled with the whole concept of the Nutcracker; he says the ballet was intended as a divertissement to follow Tchaikovsky’s new opera, “Iolanthe.”

But 125 years later, Nutcrackers abound, from elaborately beautiful productions like PNB’s, to community performances at local dance schools. In the greater Seattle area alone you can choose from almost a dozen renditions. I’m excited about “Land of the Sweets: a Burlesque Nutcracker.”

Somehow, though, my serious intent was hijacked by the emotional response I have to this ballet.
Watch for this little girl, Samrawit Saleem, as Clara. She's dancing here with Dammiel Cruz
photo by Angela Sterling
First off, PNB’s three year old production of George Balanchine's Nutcracker, originally choreographed in 1954, is swell. This year I was impressed with the innate grace and stage presence of student Samrawit Saleem in the role of Clara. It was especially nice to hear she's a product of PNB's Dance Chance program. Dance Chance reaches out to kids with physical and artistic aptitude, kids who might not have an opportunity to study ballet, and offers them free ballet training for two years. If they like the discipline, and if their teachers agree, they can continue their training, often with the help of scholarships. The beautiful corps de ballet member Angeli Mamon is a Dance Chance alum.
Price Suddarth as a Toy Soldier in Act 1
photo by Angela Sterling
Also noteworthy for me on opening night: Price Suddarth as the Toy Soldier, Candy Cane James Moore, and the lovely Elizabeth Murphy who was born to dance the role of Dew Drop.
Elizabeth Murphy is a pretty pretty Dew Drop. BTW, that's Angeli Mamon (with the dimples) right in front of her
photo by Angela Sterling
And I can’t omit the dancing Orzas: Sarah and Seth, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier. Sarah was promoted to principal dancer in September and I can’t think of a dancer who deserved it more. In this ballet, she gets to twinkle around waving her wand, dressed in a sparkly purple outfit. I am certain every little girl in the hall went home and dreamed she got to trade places with Sarah.

In any case, when Sarah vaults backwards from the floor onto Seth’s shoulder, not once but TWICE, I held my breath. You really have to trust your partner will be there for you.

Many longtime Seattleites miss Kent Stowell’s darker Nutcracker, with costumes and sets by Maurice Sendak. They prefer it to Balanchine’s sugar coated confection. I confess I am Switzerland when it comes to this holiday chestnut.

Here’s why.

Every time I see the Nutcracker (too many to count) I’m like a little girl with my face pressed up to the plate glass window of a chocolate shop. So many tempting goodies that I don't get to eat.

The lavishly trimmed tree, the rich egg nog, the happy family gatherings; they’re all part of our country’s dominant religious tradition, one that I don’t share. I appreciate the artistry of PNB’s dancers and its orchestra under Emil de Cou; I’m dazzled by the people who build the fantastic costumes in Larae Theige Hascall’s costume shop. Truly, those waltzing flower skirts are miraculous to behold. 

But when I am in the middle of all that holiday cheer, I feel like an observer from outer space, or Margaret Mead on an island in the South Seas, observing very foreign cultural customs.

Ok, that's enough bah, humbug for one post.

If you can, go see The Nutcracker at Pacific Northwest Ballet, or at your favorite local dance company. Take a child, watch her face light up when the snowflakes start to waltz. Try to see the magic through her eyes. If nothing else, do what I do: dream of owning your own tiara someday. 
I confess, I miss the boat from the Kent Stowell Nutcracker, don't you?
photo by Angela Sterling

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