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.  


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