For more than three decades, Seattle’s version of “The Nutcracker” lacked one role that everyone knew had to be there. In the original version of Tchaikovsky’s famed Christmas ballet, and most subsequent adaptations, the second act is given over to a parade of “sweets” presided over by the Sugar Plum Fairy. In 1981, when choreographer Kent Stowell and author/illustrator Maurice Sendak began work on their “Nutcracker” for Pacific Northwest Ballet, the pair famously decided to jettison the Land of Sweets and create a fairyland seraglio ruled by a mysterious Pasha and overrun by mice in turbans. The lead ballerina role became an adult Clara, the little girl of the first act transformed by dream logic into a grown woman and partnered with her Nutcracker Prince in Act II.
When PNB’s artistic director Peter Boal decided to retire this nontraditional version in 2015, he opted for “George Balachine’s The Nutcracker” (to give this version its full and trademarked title), a work first staged by the Russian choreographer in 1954. Balanchine had learned the ballet himself at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, dancing in a production that still incorporated various bits created for the premiere in 1892. Boal first saw the Balanchine version at age 5 and also danced in it as a student as well as during his career at New York City Ballet.
Thus PNB has joined the rest of the country’s ballet companies in presenting the Land of Sweets, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and her Cavalier. Clara stays a child throughout the evening. This version ends with an unambiguously happy gathering. In all, it should be a relief to those who tired of telling their out-of-town visitors that there were no dancing angels nor a Sugar Plum Fairy in Seattle. For those who collected myriad of peacock ornaments at McCaw Hall’s gift store to decorate their Christmas trees, the Arabian dance of the second act still offers a distinctly peacock feather look.
While returning Seattle to a more traditional version of “The Nutcracker” with Balanchine’s ballet, Boal also elected to give this production a fresh sprinkle of fairy dust. Author/illustrator Ian Falconer, whose “Olivia” books feature an artistic young pig, has designed a stylized 19th century look for the sets and costumes. Clara’s New England home, where the first act’s Christmas party takes place, is set in the middle of a lovely birch forest (appropriate for the snow scene) and the Land of the Sweets appears to be built out of the ribbon candies. Besides the sets, the new production also required 154 new costumes. Everything was built in the Seattle.
On opening night, the excitement was high as people paused for selfies with facsimiles of the set in the lobby of the McCaw Hall. Once settled into their seats, there were a few muffled giggles as “Olivia” fans spotted a homage to the piggy heroine in the set.
Immediately prior to the overture, Boal stepped out from behind the curtain to flash his red striped socks (stripes play a big part in Falconer’s artistic vision for the “Nutcracker”). Boal then announced that the evening’s Sugar Plum Fairy, Elizabeth Murphy, had been promoted from soloist to principal dancer. “Elizabeth Murphy has been turning heads on our stage since she came to us from Ballet West four years ago,” said Boal. “Like a young Meryl Streep, she brings a refreshing combination of strength and vulnerability to every role she performs.” Murphy joined PNB as a member of the corps de ballet in 2011 and was promoted to soloist in 2013.
Then the lights dimmed. A nifty bit of high tech animation by local Straightface Studios held the entire audience spellbound and, miracle of miracles, completely silent through the opening overture.
What followed were charming performances by many of the smallest members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet School as party guests, a Hare Drummer, tiny angels, and Polichinelles (French sweets). Various members of the company shone as the dolls Harlequin and Columbine (Margaret Mullin and Angelica Generosa) and the Toy Soldier (Kyle Davis) in Act I. In Act II, the tallest role was danced by Joshua Grant, ably maneuvering in Mother Ginger’s oversized skirt and stilts.
As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Murphy was gallantly partnered by Jerome Tisserand as the Cavalier. Tisserand’s wife Laura played the Dewdrop and beautifully led a bevy of blossoms in the ballet’s beloved Waltz of the Flowers.
In the remaining performances of “The Nutcracker,” all the members of the company will cycle through multiple roles in the production. Murphy, for example, is scheduled to dance Arabian, Dewdrop, Spanish Lead, Mrs. Stahlbaum, and the Sugar Plum Fairy over the subsequent weeks.
PNB’s “Nutcracker” runs through December 28. Tickets are available through the PNB Box Office at 301 Mercer Street at Seattle Center or online at PNB.org.