PNB’s Nutcracker Turns 26, Still Pretty Hot
Special to The SunBreak by Scott Bernard.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker kicked off its 26th season last (Black) Friday night (it runs through December 30; tickets are $26 and up). The date was especially fitting, in that a successful Nutcracker production is to most ballet companies what successful holiday sales are to Nordstrom.
If you haven’t seen it, what makes this production different from others done in countless cities–and from the New York City Ballet/George Balanchine version televised on PBS this time of year–is its depth. With sets and costumes by Where the Wild Things Are author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, this production benefits from his tendency to embrace the darker side of childhood.
Napping on Christmas Eve, young Clara dreams of her godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, who conjures a valiant Nutcracker character to protect the lovely Princess Pirlipat from the evil Mouse King. That doesn’t go so well, the Nutcracker is defeated, and the Mouse King bites the Princess. Fail.
Later that evening at a Christmas party hosted by her parents, Clara receives the gift of a Nutcracker doll from the dysfunctional, eye-patch-sporting Drosselmeier. Her little brother Fritz is given a Mouse King doll, and doing what little brothers do when egged on by their bizarre godfathers, chases Clara, breaking the Nutcracker doll. Drosselmeier bandages the Nutcracker with his handkerchief, and dancing ensues. The guests slowly leave, but not before Dosselmeier whispers to Clara something that seriously creeps her out. (Where is Chris Hansen when you need him?)
When Clara gets out of bed at midnight to find her Nutcracker, she trips over and injures one of the little mice scurrying about. This ignites sectarian tensions between the mice and Nutcracker loyalists. Battle ensues, and the Nutcracker army wins (Mission Accomplished!) thanks to a shoe thrown by Clara. As a reward, the Nutcracker takes the suddenly adult Clara (sorry, Drosselmeier) to what looks to be one of Saddam’s palaces, where dancers from various countries perform for their viewing pleasure.
As young Clara, Eileen Kelly had the right presence and grace. Daniel Bryson-Deane was terrific as her little brother Fritz, bringing a genuine touch to the role without going over the top. As the adult Clara, Carla Körbes danced with technical precision, lyricism and feeling. Stanko Milov was a perfectly fine Nutcracker, although there wasn’t much chemistry between Körbes and Milov. Arianna Lallone danced the role of the Peacock in the way that only she can. (Hers are seriously tough pointe shoes to fill.) The excellent PNB corps was a bit out of sync in the snow scene at the end of Act One, but was tight for the Waltz of the Flowers, led by Mara Vinson.
The Nutcracker, like many timeless, archetypical stories, can be a bit of a Rorschach test: What you see reflects what’s going on in the world around you. Teens and Twi-moms will likely compare young Clara to Bella Swan, aching for a life with the hottie who lets her into his otherworldly domain…but only so far. My Seattle-honed political correctness radar was going off as the turban-wearing mice were forced to lay down as the Pasha (with an eye patch…hmmm) showed his dominance over them. A bit too Abu Ghraib for me.
But all of that was no doubt lost on the many children–including the one with me–who loved the dancing, the battle, the giant Christmas tree that unfolds to unreal proportions like Christimus Prime, the snow and the spectacle that makes this ballet an enduring tradition.