It’s 30 years since Pacific Northwest Ballet debuted its new production of The Nutcracker with choreography by Kent Stowell and sets and costumes by the well-loved children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. It has worn extraordinarily well all these years, no less so now as it began its 30th season with full houses Thanksgiving weekend at McCaw Hall.
Sunday afternoon, the lobby was full of little girls in party dresses and small boys in unaccustomed jackets with proud parents and grandparents in tow, oohing and aahing at life-size Nutcracker figures, plus many who came without children for the sheer pleasure of it.
The overture, played excellently by PNB’s orchestra and conducted by Allan Dameron; the opening backdrop, with so much to look at; and the glimpse of a sleeping Clara and the three miniature dancers acting out her dream: they all set the story, so that when the scrim went up and we saw the Christmas party in full swing, we felt we were already part of it.
Stowell is good at this kind of scene: the children dancing, playing, or teasing, and godfather Drosselmeyer (retired PNB dancer Timothy Lynch) performed with just the right touch of welcome and scariness. The charming set morphs into the dream scene, and the surroundings growing bigger and bigger, Christmas tree, clock and all, as Clara seems smaller and smaller in contrast. In this first act, Liora Neuville danced a notably charming Ballerina Doll, while the battle between mice, soldier dolls (cannon, cavalry and all) and Nutcracker was executed with much colorful activity, led by Price Suddarth as the Nutcracker, Eric Hipolito, Jr. as the Warrior Mouse, and Matthew Renko as the Mouse King.
Clara’s dream gets more fantastic in the second act, which has everything from travels in an oceangoing boat with sails, waves, flying fish, and a panoramic backdrop, to a Pasha’s palace and all kinds of delectable entertainment for Clara and her Nutcracker prince. In her dream they are now grown up, and are danced, respectively, by Lindsi Dec and William Yin-Lee.
This is the first time I’ve seen Dec, a company soloist, in the lead role, and she more than rose to the occasion. She phrased her movements to mirror the music, each one gracefully carried through with her arms and body, and as though she had all the time in the world to execute it. Her balance was firm, she was light as a feather on her feet, and she gave character to her role. Lee-Yin was an able partner: supportive when needed, but good in his solo moments, also.
This Nutcracker requires an enormous cast, using many students from the PNB school, even very young ones. Their training was particularly evident in the footwork of the eight small people, who danced out of a cottage at the Pasha’s palace.
I have always felt Stowell’s choreography is least compelling in large corps dances: in The Nutcracker, the dances of the Snowflakes and of the Flowers. Though danced well, with Maria Chapman as the lead flower, the choreography is uninspired, and what carries the day in both are the exquisite costumes, plus the snow-draped forest-treed backdrop for the Snowflakes and Randall Chiarelli’s lighting.
Despite having seen this production many, many times, the entire performance remains fresh, thanks to the influx of new student performers and new lead dancers bringing their own excitement to it. The company is superb these days.
There is a rumor that this production may be retired in the not-to-far distant future. Enjoy it while you can. It continues through Dec 29.