Monday, December 16, 2019

Three Nutcrackers, One Curmudgeon

The grand finale of Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"
photo @ Angela Sterling

I had one of those ‘aha’ moments this weekend.

An epiphany. A revelation. A shock of self-discovery.

I actually like the Nutcracker ballet.

Doesn’t that sound sort of obvious for a person who writes a lot about dance in general and ballet in particular?

Trust me, this realization took me by surprise.

I’ve seen some version of the Nutcracker every year for decades; sometimes I attend more than one performance.
PNB dancers are lovely snowflakes, aren't they?
photo @ Angela Sterling

Usually I’m there because I’m writing a story, or checking out young dancers making their debuts in featured roles. For years I’ve been oh so nonchalant about the production: so hokey, so saccharine, so predictable. (Not to mention Drosselmeier, giver of the nutcracker, a role that’s just short of pedophile.)

Imagine my surprise to discover that somehow, without me noticing, the Nutcracker’s joy and optimism had penetrated my curmudgeonly cynic’s shell. It was almost like I was hit upside the head by a projectile of some sort…like an un-cracked walnut.

In a way, that’s exactly what happened; the projectile was Mark Morris’ acclaimed take on the ballet, “The Hard Nut.”
Snowflakes ala Mark Morris in "The Hard Nut"
photo @ Julieta Cervantes

With visual inspiration drawn from comic artist Charles Burns, and gender-bending casting, Morris has created a hipster’s-eye take on the holiday classic. Morris told a journalist not long ago that he was inspired by the full Tchaikovsky score, performed at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre this year by a small, live orchestra. Sitting in the audience last week, I felt a disconnect between the soaring beauty of the music and Morris’ snarky, wink-wink choreography. Most of the audience found it hilarious. In me, it all evinced a clear-eyed realization that I want my holiday entertainment to inspire me. Straight up, if you will. Pardon the pun.

That’s not to say I’m wed to George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography, now onstage in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production at McCaw Hall. I'll take my Nutcracker joy where it presents itself.

This weekend I attended a workshop of Donald Byrd’s “Harlem Nutcracker,” a show he created originally in 1996 for his New York-based company. Set to the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn jazz adaption of Tchaikovsky’s music, Byrd's rendition of the 1892 ballet takes place in contemporary Harlem.
Original production of Donald Byrd's "Harlem Nutcracker"
photo @ Susan Kuklin courtesy Spectrum Dance

Even truncated and presented in workshop form, Byrd’s “Harlem Nutcracker” delivered the emotional punch I didn’t realize I was craving. He hews to the same story line as Balanchine, but where Clara is a young girl in the ballet, she’s a recent widow in Harlem, visited by the ghost of her late husband. The choreography—at least what Byrd presented in this workshop—was sassy and saucy, and I look forward to seeing a full-on production. The all-ages packed house was with me on that.

We’re living in dark times, both literally as we inch towards the Winter solstice, and figuratively, as Congress claws its way to impeaching the man in the White House. So many people I know are overwhelmed right now, in search of diversions or laughter, or maybe the oblivion that comes with one eggnog shot too many.
My spirits soar with PNB's Leta Biasucci as the Sugar Plum Fairy

Personally I need something to remind me of the powerful and resilient human spirit.

That’s not to say I don’t love some of the sillier holiday shows, your Buttcracker or gay cabaret, for example. But this time of year I crave art that inspires at least a few hours of gratitude and good will. You may find the holiday spirit in a performance of Handel’s stirring “Messiah,” or at ACT Theatre’s annual stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story of redemption, “A Christmas Carol,” or in any number of other December productions. Apparently, and unbeknownst to me, I find it at PNB's Nutcracker.

As I sat through Morris’ alt-version, enjoying his take on Snowflakes, appalled by creepy Drosselmeier, my mind went unbidden to the ballet, to the magical synergy of Tchaikovsky and Balanchine. That’s when it hit me: omg, I’m a sap. A sappy holiday sap.
Oy vey!!!
Nothing sappier than Mother Ginger!
photo @ Angela Sterling

Happy Holidays y’all.  

Monday, December 2, 2019

I Found a Reason to Smile

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'
photo @ Angela Sterling

I really envy people who get to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker” for the very first time.

(To be accurate, it’s PNB’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” created for New York City Ballet in 1954 and first presented in Seattle in 2015.)

Back to my envy.

I was one of thousands of people who flocked to Marion Oliver McCaw Hall this past weekend for the show’s annual opening performances. Unlike most of my fellow audience members, I’ve seen some version of this classic ballet dozens of times over the years. Partly, that’s because it’s my job to see things. But like many of us, this time of year I’m searching for experiences of awe and wonder; for sense memories of what it means to be our fullest selves.
Always stunning PNB principal dancer Noelani Pantastico
photo @ Angela Sterling

Watching little girls dressed up in their holiday finery, hearing them gasp as the curtain goes up and they see Clara, Fritz and a holiday party for the first time? Well, that’s what I envy: their surprise and delight, their sheer wonder at the extravagance of it all.

So, every year I return to PNB and---to paraphrase a friend and fellow arts writer—I open my heart chakra, hoping to experience some new delight. This year it came in the form of a young dancer named Adam Abdi, who is cast in the role of Fritz, Clara’s bratty younger brother.
That's Adam Abdi in center stage, with the red tie, holding Madison Taylor's hand
PNB photo @ Angela Sterling

If you don’t know anything about “Nutcracker,” suffice it to say that in Act I, Fritz and Clara’s parents host a Christmas party. An odd gentleman named Drosselmeier arrives and presents Clara with a nutcracker that later evolves into an animate creature who vanquishes some invasive rats. Or mice. Some type of rodent infestation.

Back to Adam/Fritz.

As I said, I’ve seen a load of Nutcracker productions and rafts of ballet students performing roles that range from candy canes and angels to the flock of Polichinelles who emerge from under Mother Ginger’s voluminous skirts. Usually the focus is on the student cast as Clara; Marissa Luu was impressive on opening night. But Adam Abdi stole the show, and my heart.

Abdi infused Balanchine’s 65 year old choreography with fresh verve. When he grabbed the nutcracker from his sister’s arms and cantered around the stage, he was the epitome of the jealous sibling exacting a moment of revenge. But Abdi is more than a budding actor. The kid has all the makings of a dancer.

He swung his legs in wide, graceful arcs, his toes pointed. Leading a gaggle of boys, his imaginary pony ride was full of joy and timed well to Tchaikovsky’s score (performed with typical brio by the PNB orchestra). Even when Miles Pertl, as Fritz’s father, scooped him up off the floor at the end of the party, Abdi’s Fritz kicked up a furious, and realistic, storm.
PNB Principal Dancer Leta Biasucci soars as the Sugar Plum Fairy
photo @ Angela Sterling

This year’s opening night cast offered the usual great performances from PNB company members. I particularly enjoyed Noelani Pantastico as an enigmatic Peacock (officially, she's dancing a section called Coffee), Elizabeth Murphy’s sparkling Dewdrop and Leta Biasucci’s sprightly Sugar Plum Fairy.
PNB principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy is a stunning Dewdrop
photo @ Angela Sterling

But I left McCaw Hall with visions not of sugar plums dancing in my head, but of Adam Abdi standing center stage, beaming out at the audience. I hope he will keep dancing, because this boy was born for the stage.

I wonder if that’s what somebody said when Peter Boal once danced that very same role?