Balanchine’s Nutcracker – Pacific Northwest Ballet

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When George Balanchine first re-envisioned The Nutcracker ballet (composed by Peter Tchaikovsky, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in December 1892) for New York City Ballet in 1954, it was hard to imagine that it would become the North American Christmas staple and global phenomenon it has transformed into over the years. Balanchine touched a nerve in all of us, combining the Ballets Russes‘ ability to assemble a Gesamtkunstwerk of art, decor, costumes, music, dancing, and spectacle on stage, and evoke our sense of wonder and enchantment that we experienced as children at Christmas time. Mobilizing just the right amounts of nostalgia, wonderment, curiosity, and joy, Balanchine created a timeless work of art that persists in many countries to this day.

Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet first produced Balanchine’s Nutcracker® in 2015. Balanchine’s ballets are trademarked and copyright-protected, which ensures an accurate restaging of the original work, allowing us to experience the authentic vision and interpretation of the ballet. This season, the spectacular experience returned to Seattle Center’s state-of-the-art McCaw Hall for 38 performances, from November 25 to December 28, 2016, accompanied by the PNB Orchestra.

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The costume and set designer Ian Falconer is an American illustrator and children’s book author, who has created 30 covers for The New Yorker as well as other publications, and is widely known for the iconic Olivia children’s book series, which features a young pig and her many adventures. He designed costumes for the Boston Ballet’s production of Firebird (1996), and for Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes (2003) choreographed by Peter Martins for the New York City Ballet.

For this production, seventeen mice (eight adult mice, eight young mice, and the seven-headed Mouse King) were built by Erik Andor and a team of fabricators in his Pioneer Square studio. There are 154 costumes in the show, not counting duplicates (multiple versions of the same costume, for different-sized dancers playing the same role – Sugar Plum Fairy, Cavalier, Dewdrop, etc.) so some of the costumes were constructed at the Seattle Children’s Theater and Seattle Repertory Theatre costume shops.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet was founded in 1972 as Pacific Northwest Dance Association under the aegis of Seattle Opera Association, with early leadership provided by Leon Kalimos (Executive Director, 1973-1977), Janet Reed (Ballet Mistress and Director of the School, 1974-1976) and Melissa Hayden (Ballet Mistress and Director of the School, 1976-1977, and Artistic Director the first 5 months of 1977). The Company became an independent organization in September 1977 and was renamed Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1978. In August 1977, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell were appointed Artistic Directors of Pacific Northwest Dance. During their extended tenure the Company and School attained an international reputation for superb performances and excellent training. In July 2005, Peter Boal succeeded Mr. Stowell and Ms. Russell as Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet School.

In 1975, Pacific Northwest Dance Ballet Company acquired Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker, performing the work for eight seasons. In 1983, under Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, the Company presented a new production with choreography by Stowell and scenic and costume designs by famed children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. The Stowell and Sendak Nutcracker contributed significantly to the Company’s identity, holding the stage for 32 seasons. In 2015, PNB acquired George Balanchine’s iconic production, blending Peter’s Boal’s personal history—his New England childhood and his 30-year involvement with the Balanchine Nutcracker as both a student and professional dancer—with the future of the Company.

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First time in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Carrie Imler, steals the show with her exquisite pointe work and masterful dancing.Balanchine regularly made changes to his Nutcracker, including, perhaps surprisingly, the addition of elements from the St. Petersburg original. In 1968, he added a special effect to the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, in which the ballerina steps onto a sliding track on the stage and, supported by her partner, appears to glide across its surface. He also added wands with snowballs for the Snowflakes at the end of the first act, recalling the elaborate costumes of the Maryinsky’s dancers.

The “Waltz of Flowers” is breathtaking in this production thanks to the exquisite costume design and the talented dancers. The prominent Christmas star that appears at the end of Act I is presented by renowned Seattle-based artist Dale Chihuly. Winter Star, part of Chihuly’s popular Chandelier series, makes a stunning addition to the snow scene leading Nutcracker and Clara through the magical forest to a faraway land.

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Although Balanchine’s Nutcracker established the ballet as a perennial holiday favorite and became the model for many subsequent productions, the ballet had been danced in the United States since 1940, when Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performed Alexandra Fedorova’s staging of a one-act Nutcracker in New York City. The production subsequently toured the country throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, giving many Americans their first experience of The Nutcracker. The first full-length Nutcracker in the U.S. was choreographed for San Francisco Ballet by Willam Christensen in 1944, only to be replaced in 1954 with a production by Willam’s brother, Lew Christensen.

When New York City Ballet moved to the newly built New York State Theater in 1964, the Nutcracker scenery was completely redesigned to take advantage of the larger space. (The technical superiority of the new theater allowed an even more magnificent tree.) That same year, a young Judith Fugate, newly enrolled in the School of American Ballet, danced the role of Clara for the first time. She would continue in the role for four seasons before moving on to other parts, eventually joining New York City Ballet and adding the leading roles of Dewdrop and the Sugar Plum Fairy to her repertory. Balanchine spent more than half of the production’s $40,000 budget on the Christmas tree, infuriating Morton Baum, chair of New York City Center’s finance committee, which had put up the money. Baum asked, “George, can’t you do it without the tree?” to which Balanchine replied, “The ballet is the tree.”

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Balanchine had danced in the Maryinsky Theater’s production in St. Petersburg as a child. His roles included soldier, mouse king, little prince, and the lead in the hoop dance, which had been choreographed by its original interpreter, Alexander Shiryaev, for the 1892 premiere. Balanchine remembered the luxurious days before the Russian revolution and held them as an ideal. When Baum asked him to stage The Nutcracker, banking on the popularity of The Nutcracker Suite in the United States, Balanchine said, “If I do anything, it will be full-length and expensive.”

Those first performances of The Nutcracker in 1892 St. Petersburg received mixed reviews. Critics complained the music was “too symphonic” and the ballerina (the Sugar Plum Fairy) wasn’t given enough to do. The scenario had been put together by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theaters and a great Francophile. He used as his source not the E.T.A. Hoffman German original of 1816, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, but Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 French adaptation of Hoffman’s story, Histoire d’un casse-noisette (The Tale of the Nutcracker). Marius Petipa, the esteemed and prolific maître d’ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theater, prepared instructions for Tchaikovsky and mapped out the sequence of dances, yet withdrew due to illness before rehearsals began. The task of choreographing The Nutcracker was left to Petipa’s assistant, Lev Ivanov, whose work was deemed uneven, from brilliant (the kaleidoscopic Waltz of the Snowflakes) to chaotic (the battle between the gingerbread soldiers and the mice).

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In the great finale of the performance, Clara and the Nutcracker leave the Candy Land Wonderland in a flying sleigh, leaving spectators breathless and happy with delight. Don’t miss this inspiring experience this holiday season!

Photos by Angela Sterling and Elise Bakketun.

Info provided by Doug Fullington and the Pacific Northwest Ballet

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