By: R.M. Campbell
For more than 30 years now, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” is a fixture of the holiday season. Actually, its is in most American cities but few have similar visual charm and panache. And so, PNB opened its 2009 edition of this veritable warhorse over the weekend at McCaw Hall. By the end of the run of more than 40 performances, some 125,000 people will have seen the production. Nothing else in the region comes close to those numbers.
Sometimes people wonder why the company doesn’t just commission new decor and costumes and new choreography. Why should it when the current one sells so many tickets? A new production is always a risk from every standpoint, just as the present “Nutcracker” was in 1983 when it was first produced by a fledging ensemble. PNB is so established now there aren’t so many who remember those nervous days at the beginning when it struggled for everything. This “Nutcacker” was a huge gamble that paid off. They don’t always.
When Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, co-artistic directors who guided the company for more than a quarter of a century, sought the services of children’s book illustrator, writer and set designer Maurice Sendak as a collaborator, he expressed no enthusiasm for a project that suggested only sugar cookies and innocent fantasy. But when Stowell and Russell told him they wanted to return to E.T. A. Hoffmann for the libretto, Sendak became interested. It is not that Sendak does not like sugar but he likes the spice to go with it. Stowell and Russell were in agreement, and thus this “Nutcracker” was born and has endured. Hoffmann’s original story, from the early 19th century, is a complex affair with various sideplots. Some of those are incorporated into the basic narrative, although not always with the greatest of clarity. Sendak wanted to emphasize Clara’s unspoken sexual fears, but they are hard to figure out unless one is told. The company has always shied away from such revelations, knowing full well their audiences had little desire for such earthy issues in the midst of their holiday fun. Stowell’s choreography has not shied away from anything, but it doesn’t explain much either. That’s fine because those that want to explore the subtexts of the ballet can do so and those that don’t want to can avoid them all together.
What keeps the allure of the ballet fresh year after year is the meticulous care in maintaining Sendak’s wondrous design — costumes and sets. Sendak doesn’t do much work in the theater now — alas — but when he did it was marked by the kind of singular imagination that mark his efforts in PNB’s “Nutcracker.” There is so much to see, one cannot take it all in immediately. Only with repeated visits does the sweep of Sendak’s design reveal itself in anything other than the most superficial way. Just as Tchaikovsky’s music is lightness itself, in terms of his tunes and their textures, so are Sendak’s colors.
Stowell’s choreography is not a match for the inventiveness of Sendak’s design, but it has its own flavor, sense of imagination and wit. There too are large treasures and small ones. Inevitably, some scenes work better than others, but in the main, there is a welcome consistency to his ideas. Stowell does not pin Sendak to the floor but helps illuminate their shared ideas.
One of the pleasures of the Stowell “Nutcracker” is the generous use of PNB School students in such roles as all sorts of mice — warriors to babies to mothers — as well as the infantry, cavalry and officers who do battle with them. There are also Chinese girls, and some eight who are called Toy Theatre. They are beautifully rehearsed and always bring their youthful charm and earnestness to any performance, even when there are tiny slips. For the members of the company, there are maybe 20 named roles from soloists to bit players.
Stanko Milov and Carla Korbes danced the Prince and the adult Clara. With his height and natural stage presence, Milov takes to these danseur noble roles easily. He has ready command of his space and an aristocratic bearing. Korbes and Milov dance well together. She has a seemingly effortless technique and an ability to inhabit whatever she takes on. She was a predictably regal Clara, the very image a young girl would dream of becoming. Kobes is the essence of cool. Dancing Herr Drosselmeier was Jordan Pacitti, a last-minute substitute for Seth Orza. He did the part admirably, not too much in the first act and with character in the second.
In smaller roles, James Moore was a dynamite head warrior mouse. He also was one of three Dervishes, along with Barry Kerollis and Josh Spell. Rachel Foster was an enchanting Ballerina Doll and Benjamin Griffiths, a compelling Sword-Dancer Doll. Ryan Cardea’s Chinese Tiger was amusing and Liora Reshef, Benjamin Griffiths and Rachel Foster, an engaging commedia trio.
The two major roles for women in the second act, other than Clara, are the lead in “Waltz of the Flowers” and the Peacock. Mara Vinson brought refinement, limpid phrasing and a sure technique to “Waltz of the Flowers.” Lallone was, of course, sinuous as the Peacock, but also haughty as well as vulnerable.
In the pit was Allan Dameron, acting music director of the PNB Orchestra. He led the orchestra with the assurance of an old master. In the midst of everything on stage, one should never forget Tchaikovsky without whom there would be no “Nutcracker.”