One of the most Seattle’s most beloved holiday traditions is Pacific Northwest Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.” It runs through December 28th at McCaw Hall.
Mothers and fathers who brought their children to the PNB ballet are now bringing their grandchildren. The infinite joy of watching children—and sometimes adults—bewitched by their first-ever “The Nutcracker” is priceless.
After 32 years of performing the Kent Stowell/Maurice Sendak “Nutcracker,” PNB introduced a new production in 2015: George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” with sets and costumes by Ian Falconer. If you’re unfamiliar with Falconer’s work, he’s the illustrator and author of those best-selling children’s books about Olivia, a precocious, hyperactive, and adorable, bossy-pants pig.
The Balanchine version is the same one that PNB’s artistic director Peter Boal performed both as a child and adult dancer in his years with New York City Ballet–the same one that Falconer loved as a boy.
George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” is more whimsical and lighthearted than the Stowell/Sendak version. Herr Drosselmeier is not creepy, and the battle against the Mouse King (who is smaller, although he does have multiple heads) is not as intense without the cannon fire. The second act, too, with its Candyland theme, is more fanciful.
Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” still tells the story about a sweet little girl who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and dreams about traveling to a magical kingdom, where, among other delights, Christmas trees grow big, peacocks preen, snowflakes and sugar plums dance, and toy soldiers fight mice.
But the Stowell/Sendak version had Clara transformed into a grown-up dancer via her dream; in Balanchine/Falconer’s, Clara is danced by a child throughout, and the Sugar Plum Fairy performs the grand pas de deux with her cavalier.
The individual dances in Act II of Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” now have names based on the treats Clara’s mother serves at the party: Spanish Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, Candy Canes, and Marzipan. Falconer and Boal decided to change the mid-19th-century story’s location from the usual Germany to New England, as well.
The new “Nutcracker” is a visual paradise of 154 costumes, 22 different painted backdrops, and a wealth of detail, including an opening video depicting a snow-covered 1850’s Vermont town (made by local firm Straightface Studios), a 40-foot Christmas tree (a few feet taller than the one at NYCB) festooned with 450 lights, 17 mice (eight adult mice, eight young mice, and the seven-headed Mouse King), a Mother Ginger costume big enough to conceal eight children, a magic bed, and a walnut boat hoisted by flying reindeer, powered by windshield-wiper motors. The snow storm promises to be a blizzard. (FYI: The crystal-shaped snowflakes are swept up and conserved after each performance.)
Embedded throughout the production are bits of ballet history. The Candy Cane variation is as Balanchine remembered it from Ivanov (and from dancing it himself), and the battle of the Mouse King and Nutcracker was created by the legendary Jerome Robbins, then associate artistic director of NYCB.
The elaborate stage elements and intricate lighting spark the viewers’ imagination with glorious visual effects. The most famous example is the one-ton Christmas tree that grows from a height of 12 feet to 40, evoking audible gasps of disbelief from the audience at each performance.
But it is Balanchine’s choreography that exalts the ballet. Act I introduces the characters: the Stahlbaum children; Herr Drosselmeier and his Nephew. It also begins the transition from reality into fantasy with the concluding Snowflake Waltz. Act II offers the complete transformation, as we enter The Kingdom of the Sugarplum Fairy.
The ballet is nearly 200 years old, based on the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, published in 1819 in Germany. Later revised by Alexandre Dumas (yes, the Three Musketeer guy), it became the basis for the very first “Nutcracker” ballet, choreographed by Lev Ivanov and paired with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s instantly classic score—and danced by the Mariinsky Ballet—which premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892.
Although “The Nutcracker” was introduced to the US in 1940, it wasn’t until George Balanchine created his version in 1954, that the ballet became a treasured holiday tradition in America.
As a child in Russia, Balanchine danced in the Maryinsky Theater’s production in St. Petersburg. His roles included soldier, mouse king, little prince, and the lead in the hoop dance. Decades later, in New York with his fledgling company New York City Ballet, the masterful choreographer drew upon those memories to create his own full-length “Nutcracker.”
When he staged “The Nutcracker” for NYCB in 1954, he spent more than half of the $40,000 budget on the Christmas tree, infuriating money man Morton Baum, chair of New York City Center’s finance committee. Baum asked, “George, can’t you do it without the tree?” to which Balanchine replied, “The ballet is the tree.”
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.
“”The Nutcracker’ is for children young and old,” Balanchine declared. “That is, for children and for adults who are children at heart. Because, if an adult is a good person, in his heart he is still a child.”
A Few Facts about building the “The Nutcracker”
- Clara’s party dress and Drosselmeier’s coat lining required 10 light coats of red paint for each stripe.
- Each Snow skirt has nine layers of various fabrics. There are 56 points on each skirt.
- There are 174 velvet diamonds and 322 jewels on the Harlequin costume.
- The Harlequin’s partner, Columbine, has 160 velvet diamonds and 272 jewels.
- 640: Black pompoms on the eight Polichinelle costumes.
- 760: Petals on the Waltz of the Flowers costumes. (19 costumes, including extras.)
- 10 feet and 60 pounds: The width and weight of Mother Ginger’s skirt.
- 175: Number of snaps on the Mother Ginger costume.
- 4,000: Holes cut by hand to create the lace “doily” tutus and headpieces for the Marzipan costumes.
- 300: Jewels hand-sewn on the two Arabian (peacock) headpieces.
- 500: Yards of tubular horsehair used for the Party Mothers’ hairpieces.
- 1,428: Cabochons sewn onto the Spanish women’s costumes.
- 2,568: Appliques machine-sewn on the seven Spanish dresses.
- Sewing the Nutcracker doll required a 16” long needle
- Eagle-eyed audience members may spy one gold tooth on the Mouse King
- 98 yards of “fur” have been used to create the mice. They have a total of 230 whiskers. Each adult tail consists of 25 segments. Each ear is made up of six pieces.
- Laid end-to-end, the mice’s upper lips total 782 inches.
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- There are 22 painted drops.
- 3,000 square yards of fabric were used in the creation of the scenery.
- 343 gallons of paint were used in the painting of the scenery
- The corridor scrim at the top of the show depicts Nutcrackerhistorical figures Alexander Dumas, E.T.A. Hoffman, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, George Balanchine, and Lincoln Kirstein.
- An actual walnut was used to model the construction and painting of the Nut Boat.
- It took 400 hours to build the Christmas tree. At its full height it stands 40 feet, with 450 lights on it.
- 30 cubic feet of “snow” will be deployed during the Act I Snow scene, per performance.
Pacific Northwest Ballet performs “The Nutcracker” through December 28 at McCaw Hall. Tickets range from $25–$156 for adults and $22–$141 for children 12 and under. Every family member must have a ticket, even infants. There are no bad seats at McCaw Hall so buy the seats that suit your budget. Tickets may be purchased through the PNB Box Office at 206-441-2424, online at PNB.org, or in person at 301 Mercer St.. The Teen Tix performance is Sunday, December 27, 5:30 pm. The ballet runs two hours, with one intermission.