Holiday season gets underway with PNB’s Nutcracker

By R.M. Campbell

“The Nutcracker” defines the Christmas season in American towns large enough to have even a semblance of a ballet company, or perhaps just a school looking for attention and ready cash. Some productions are grand, like New York City Ballet, which started the whole affair more than 50 years ago, and Pacific Northwest Ballet, which has been happily seen by hundreds of thousands of people; others are of more modest scale and ambition, which make up in enthusiasm what they lack in sophistication. What ties everything together is, of course, Tchaikovsky’s miraculous score and, in most cases, the holiday season as the basis of the story. A notable exception was John Neumeier’s production for Royal Winnipeg Ballet which tells of a girl’s birthday party. But dreams and fantasies and a heart-felt libretto are nearly always omnipresent.

The ballet was the rock on which PNB began its uncertain life in the 1970’s. A new production, in 1983, with Kent Stowell’s choreography and Maurice Sendak’s sets and costumes, was the company’s first brush with fame. National magazines paid attention and Caroll Ballard did a feature film. It has made millions for the company and revenue derived from the box office is still the rock on which the company survives. It is the most original production in PNB’s repertory, and continues to hold its fascination with the public. This year there will be 39 performances, the first of which was Friday night at McCaw Hall.

As Stowell observed in the New York Times two weeks ago, the ballet is probably for many “their first experience of art.” Certainly that would be true for live theater, offering not only superb dancers beautifully costumed, but extraordinary sets, a live orchestra, even singing. There are adult dancers but also lively children. Sendak’s sets do all sorts of amazing things to push the narrative forward and illustrate his vast imagination.

I have seen this production every year since it opened, at least 27 times. Some scenes read better to me now than when I first them. Little seems diminished in the intervening years. Sendak’s vivid sense of color is still remarkable. It never pales. And the details in which every character is defined is equally striking. There is wit, much of which is subtle, incredible nuance, even fun. Sendak’s famed propensity for mysterious shadows in his children’s stories is not absent, with which Stowell obviously agreed. The company makes no attempt to explain them, but they are legitimate and true to the source of all “Nutcrackers” — E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “dark, Germanic tale.” That part of the scenario is not readily apparent in the production itself but it is there. Stowell’s contribution is not as inventive as Sendak’s, but it holds its own and is a ready and agreeable companion.

PNB’s production not only involves the whole company but dozens of students from the company’s school. Well-trained and well-taught, they add considerable charm to the whole ballet. Heading the cast is Carla Korbes, as Clara, and Batkhurel Bold, as the Prince. They often dance together, each enriching the other’s performance. Korbes joined PNB in 2005 as a dancer of technical accomplishment and finesse. She is even a more finished artist now, as she demonstrated yet again Friday night. There is a crispness to her style in which every phase is developed and handsomely finished. Bold has become, it would seem, her partner of choice. He has been at PNB for 14 years, promoted to principal six years ago. He has grown in technique and polish and stage presence. His time with Korbes is well-spent.

Olivier Wevers is one of PNB’s most versatile dancers, rich in technique and personality. Unlike many dancers, he can also act. He often dances Drosselmeier. And what a pleasure that is. Not too much, not too little. He never exaggerates unduly but makes a genuine impact as a character in every movement. Ariana Lallone often does the Peacock, and how well she captures the character’s boldness, sinuousness, desirability. She is the senior member in the company. having joined as an apprentice in 1987, and retires at the end of the season. Alas.

When PNB went to New York some years ago, the critics spotted Carrie Imler, then a member of the corps. Her panache, brilliant technical resources and warmth have not disappeared in the ensuing years. She danced the lead in “Waltz of the Flowers” with amplitude and a seamless line. The whole piece, with its 17 dancers, represents some of Stowell’s best and most luminous choreography. Imler looks as if the role were set on her.

The dervishes were particularly good this year, thanks to Kiyon Gaines, James Moore and Josh Spell. So too the Commedia of Carli Samuelson, Benjamin Griffiths and Abby Relic. Also worthy of notice is the Chinese Tiger of Price Suddarth as well as Sarah Ricard Orza’s Ballerina Doll and Moore’s Sword-Dancer Doll. There are any number of secondary roles, many performed by advanced students in the school. They are almost always well-cast so they are not pushed beyond their level of competence. The young Clara was danced with personality and quiet astuteness by Amelia Jay.

Allan Dameron presided in the pit with accuracy and a feeling for the music. The PNB Orchestra responded.

As Lallone retires at the end of the season, so does Jeffrey Stanton, who joined the company in 1994. He is a first-class partner and will long be remembered as the hoofer in Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” He also will be missed.

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