Sunday, November 27, 2022

Snowflakes, Sugar Plums and...Cell Phones? Oh My!


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

It’s that time of the year, when longtime balletomanes and those brand-new to ballet flock to local theaters to see versions of the holiday classic, The Nutcracker.

In the Seattle area, we have a bevy of Nuts to choose from (including Spectrum Dance Theater’s Harlem Nutcracker coming December 8th), but Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, with sets and costumes designed by the children’s author Ian Falconer, plus dozens of dancing kids and a live orchestra, is the biggest.

So that’s where I headed on opening night, Friday, November 25th, my stomach still distended from our Thanksgiving feast the evening before, but looking forward to my annual holiday ballet hit. That evening's show featured PNB principal dancer Elle Macy and soloist Miles Pertl as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier (the end of Act 2 pas de deux is my favorite part of the show, no matter who dances).

PNB soloist Ezra Thomson as Herr Drosselmeier in the 2021 production of Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

The ever-impressive Ezra Thomson was again scheduled to take on the role of Drosselmeier, the guy who brings Clara the eponymous Nutcracker doll. Young dancers were set to jump through hoops, ham it up as furry mice or toy soldiers. And Nutcracker gives dance nerds like me a chance to check out the new corps de ballet members (along with the PNB Professional Division students) waltzing away as Snowflakes and Flowers.

PNB dancers ready to waltz as flowers in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

Last Friday, as usual, the audience was filled with families: young kids decked out in their holiday finery, little girls sporting tutus and sparkly shoes, boys uncomfortable in bow ties and tucked-in shirts but excited nonetheless. Watching them is more than half the delight of the show because for kids, The Nutcracker is truly magical. Their joy is contagious.

Alas, none of these happy families was seated near my party of three. Instead, we were sandwiched between two groups of people who seemed unfamiliar with live performance audience etiquette.

Just before the pre-recorded curtain speech (the one where they tell you to silence your cell phones) three women bustled into the seats in front of us. Perhaps they weren’t listening, or maybe PNB needs to add explicit directions not to text or take telephone calls during the show, because from the time they sat down, one of these women was involved in an ongoing text conversation. The light from her screen distracted even when she lowered her phone to her lap. And while her companion’s phone was, indeed, silenced, that didn’t stop her from taking a call during Act 2!

Meanwhile, behind us, a party of four younger women gabbed continuously through the overture. I felt like a shrew when I turned to shush them; they reinforced my guilt with elaborate eye rolling. They continued to talk off and on for the rest of the show. BUT. They also REALLY liked the music. So much so, they hummed along to all their favorite parts. Sweet? Not so much.

Dear new audience members: Emil de Cou and the fabulous PNB orchestra do a great job with Tchaikovsky’s score (and every other ballet score they perform). I love this music as much as the women seated behind me, and sometimes I want to hum along too, but for the love of your fellow audience members, please let the professional musicians do their work without your musical accompaniment.

Do I sound too much like the curmudgeonly bitch on your block who yells at the kids to get off of her lawn? Probably. Maybe I’m really Emily Post’s lost love-child, hopelessly out of step with contemporary theater-going practices, or at the very least, begging people not to shit on my grass. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The pandemic might have you out of practice when it comes to attending live performances. Or maybe this is your first experience of the magic that happens in a theater. That magic is about more than what happens on the stage; for the two-hour duration of any given performance, whether it’s Nutcracker or The Wiz or A Christmas Carol, to name some of this season’s heavy hitters, you and your fellow audience members become a temporary community. Together with the artists on stage and in the orchestra pit, we get to witness a unique live performance. This version of the show will never happen again.

PNB Principal Dancer Elizabeth Murphy was a glittering Dew Drop on opening night. 
This photo by @ Angela Sterling was taken in 2019

If you’re looking at your phone instead of the stage, you might miss some amazing moments: Elizabeth Murphy as the perfect Dew Drop amidst her waltzing flowers; Macy literally leaping off the stage onto Pertl’s shoulder in that aforementioned pas de deux. Or Luther DeMyer’s Mother Ginger, mincing onto the stage atop hidden stilts, balancing that enormous skirt, waving relentlessly at the seated Nutcracker Prince and Clara until they waved back.

This isn't Luther DeMyer, but you get the picture (by @ Angela Sterling)

And that was only opening night! You’ve got a few weeks to check out your own PNB Nutcracker at McCaw Hall.

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