Monday, November 29, 2021

Nutcracker 2.0-It's Back and Better Than Ever


PNB soloist Cecilia Iliesiu, center, and fellow dancers in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.
photo @ Angela Sterling

This past weekend Pacific Northwest Ballet opened its annual holiday production of The Nutcracker.

After almost two years of COVID isolation that forced PNB to cancel last year's run, this opening is a big, big deal.

I’ve seen this version of The Nutcracker at least a dozen times since PNB debuted George Balanchine’s 1954 classic six years ago, but sitting in McCaw Hall Saturday night, watching Lesley Rausch and Dylan Wald perform the Sugar Plum Fairy/Cavalier pas de deux, it was as if I was seeing this ballet for the very first time.

Being able to gather with a (masked) audience to share a live performance, to hear the full PNB orchestra for the first time since February 2020, to watch a stage full of dancers, was remarkable. 

It was both comfortingly familiar, and yet a completely new experience.

PNB soloist Ezra Thomson, left, with DianaStarr Robinson
photo @ Angela Sterling

First, the masks. Nutcracker features a large cast: PNB company dancers, plus dozens of students. To protect their health, and that of the professional artists they perform with, the kids all wear masks, specially designed to match their costumes. 

It’s startling at first, but masking is now part of our new normal as we continue to fend off succesive waves of viral mutations. PNB takes its COVID-19 precautions seriously. In addition to masks, audience members must show proof of vaccination status, or a negative COVID test. Even the wildly popular second act appearance by Mother Ginger and her Polichinelle flock was transformed by health protocols. 

Instead of sheltering all eight children under her enormous skirts, Mother Ginger enters with only four young dancers hidden from view. The other four dance on and off from the wings, the ballet equivalent of social distancing.

These health safeguards are only part of the changed face of this Nutcracker production. PNB has made others the company hopes will help eliminate some of the art form’s embedded racial and gender biases.

PNB corps de ballet member Noah Martzall makes a very natty Green Tea Cricket
photo @ Angela Sterling

When Balanchine created his Nutcracker almost 70 years ago, mainly white audiences and critics most likely didn’t question why the male dancer in the Act II “Tea” section was dressed as an ersatz “Chinaman,” complete with a pigtail. The original energetic choreography also included movements that many Asian Americans have rightly called out as offensive.

Several years ago PNB changed part of that dated choreography to eliminate the racial stereotyping. This year, the character itself, with its costume, has been changed. Meet the “Green Tea Cricket,” complete with bobbing antennae. 

Corps de ballet member Amanda Morgan 
photo @ Angela Sterling

Beyond the Cricket, I noticed more racial diversity among the entire cast. In the "Before Times," the majority of the professional company members were white. This year, it's more diverse than ever before. 

In Friday evening's performance, two of the five Marzipan shepherdesses were young African American dancers. Someday that won’t feel so remarkable, but more than a year after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police sparked an international outcry for racial justice, you can’t gloss over the importance of onstage representation.

And that brings me to another, even more tradition-shattering change.

This year PNB hired two non-binary apprentices, one of whom has trained to perform on pointe, a ballet realm that’s been reserved for cis-gender women, outside of comedy drag troupes like Les Ballets Trockadero. 

The Waltz of the Flowers ends Act I 
photo @ Angela Sterling

Watching this apprentice waltz their way across the stage with their fellow Snowflakes, I knew I was witness to what I can only call a seismic shift in a very hide-bound artform. My Gen-Z son shrugged his shoulders when I pointed out what we’d seen; for him, ballet should reflect what’s happening in the wider society.

And that’s how this particular PNB apprentice put it to me in an online exchange.

“It makes me so excited to see what is next not only for PNB but for ballet, as the world keeps evolving and dancers like me become normal.”

I don’t know how many of my fellow audience members were aware that they were watching history-in-the-making, because this particular dancer blended so well into the full corps de ballet. And that's as it should be.

Sugar Plum Fairy Angelica Generosa, with her Cavalier Price Suddarth
photo @ Angela Sterling

Meanwhile there I was, mask on, sitting at a relatively safe distance from audience members I didn’t know, soaking in Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, appreciating this old ballet in a new way. Beyond the pageantry itself, I was keenly aware of the many stagehands, costumers and other staff working behind the scenes to restore a bit of normal to a world that COVID-19 turned upside down last year.

As I said, this year's Nutcracker was comforting, familiar, and at the same time, transformed by the calls for justice and change that have rocked our world. I wept with joy, relief, and on this Thanksgiving weekend, gratitude, for a chance to savor it all again.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2021 production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is onstage at McCaw Hall through December 28th.


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