When Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) announced its adieu to the Kent Stowell/Maurice Sendak version of The Nutcracker last year, many of us—and by “us” I mean those rare individuals who have lived in Seattle for more than a few years—reacted with a plaintive groan or a whiny, toddler-esque chorus of Noooo! And it wasn’t because we’d miss the spectacle of snow falling on twirling ballerinas or that colossal Christmas tree or that giant Mouse King puppet (Johnny Rat!) or those teeny mouse children, those leaping dolphins, that seductive peacock or even that floppy-legged, yellow-eyed Sendakian Chinese tiger. We’d certainly miss all of that. But for scores of locals, PNB’s The Nutcracker represented a special, all-important holiday tradition, as essential as your father-in-law’s cranberry relish for Thanksgiving and your mother’s chocolate caliente for Christmas Eve.
From left: Dancers’ costumes for the roles of a Snowflake, Dewdrop and one of the Flowers.
Yet, Peter Boal decided his company was done with the critically acclaimed production, which not only vaulted PNB onto the national stage, but warmed local audiences for more than 30 years. And in a move that made Boal appear less Grinch-like, the artistic director announced he’d be bringing George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker to the McCaw Hall stage, with brand-new costumes and sets by Ian Falconer, the illustrator beloved for his Olivia children’s books (and his many New Yorker magazine covers, too).
The mice in this Nutcracker will be full-body mice—not just a costumed head worn by a dancer. They’ll also be ample with “cheese bellies. Fat little mice,” according to PNB’s artistic director Peter Boal (right), with costumer Erik Andor (center) and costume shop manager Larae Theige Hascall.
The legendary Balanchine production, with its Sugar Plum Fairy and its Land of the Sweets (both in Act 2), is what audiences in New York City have marveled at since 1954. “It’s the gold standard,” Boal says. He not only danced in the production for years when he was with the New York City Ballet (NYCB), he also grew up in Westchester, just outside the city. As a child, the Balanchine Nutcracker was only a Metro-North train line away. It was part of his cherished holiday tradition.
“I have a great reverence for the production. I love it,” he says. “And we have this talent; I just wanted Ian’s take on it.”
The magic and wonder of the Nutcracker story includes furniture that comes alive, like a Grandfather clock, and ordinary objects that suddenly have new purposes, like a walnut shell that serves as a boat and delivers Clara and her Nutcracker Prince to the Land of the Sweets.
The sets and props were constructed at PNB’s scene shop in Fremont.
Enter Ian Falconer, who grew up in Connecticut and also greatly admires the Balanchine ballet. “I was about 4 years old,” he says about the first time he saw the production at Lincoln Center. “I’ve probably been to see it 31 times over the years.”
“His artwork is this forced perspective that makes everyone feel like a little kid, even if you’re fully grown,” Peter Boal says about set and costume designer Ian Falconer’s work. “Some of the cornices (ornamental wall molding) are just a little bit higher up. And some things have longer shadows.”
Before his Olivia the Pig books tickled the imagination of children and their parents—Boal read the pig books to his daughter Sarah—Falconer designed sets and costumes for opera, theater and ballet, including, yes, NYCB. He crossed paths with Boal in Manhattan, and years later, when Boal (with his board’s blessing) decided to quit the longstanding version he had inherited from Kent Stowell, his predecessor, and cofounder of PNB, he reached out to Falconer.
“One of the first questions Peter asked me was ‘Do you agree that the New York production of The Nutcracker is the best one you’ve ever seen?’” Falconer recalls. “And I was able to say yes, because I’ve seen a few, including productions in Paris, at the Bolshoi, at American Ballet Theatre. And I’ve never liked them as much.”
Other on-stage illusions will be a 40-foot Christmas tree dressed with 300 lights, a 70-pointed Christmas star designed by Dale Chihuly, a sleigh pulled by reindeer and a wintry snow scene set in a birch forest with 30 cubic feet of falling flakes.
What’s to like, Boal and Falconer agree, is the simplicity of the Nutcracker story: a girl and her nutcracker doll and a magical, wintry Christmas adventure. In Balanchine’s version, Clara remains a girl throughout; in the Stowell/Sendak version, she becomes an adult in the second half. “This one is very toy-like,” Falconer says about the new production. Another significant story change: Clara, instead of arriving at an exotic Turkish kingdom, now sails into a kingdom of candy cane columns and dancing marzipan. (Be on the lookout for a walnut-shaped boat that ushers them in.)
“I would have felt a much greater risk commissioning a Nutcracker from a choreographer,” says Boal. His dancers, Boal points out, love Balanchine’s choreography: There’s the musicality, for example, and Balanchine’s exquisite steps. “There’s no wasted energy. There’s no excess movement. It’s pure beauty to watch because the choreography is so pristine and precise,” says PNB soloist Sarah Ricard Orza, who danced Balanchine’s The Nutcracker hundreds of times during seven seasons with the NYCB.
“I suppose any new production risks missing the core value of the work,” says Kurt Beattie, artistic director at Seattle’s ACT–A Contemporary Theatre, who’s overseen years of another live, local holiday tradition: A Christmas Carol. “But I don’t think it’s the same risk as with a regular new ballet or a new play. We know these works are great and enduring and have connected with audiences for many, many years.”
The curtain rises on PNB’s new Nutcracker on November 27. Find ticket information at pnb.org.
The new $3.5 million Nutcracker production teems with brightly-colored costumes (starting with Falconer’s illustrations), bold backdrops (think stripes!) and a Mother Ginger character with the biggest of skirts (10-feet wide), from which eight children scamper out.
Some 50 people, including costumer Rob Newton (in brown sweater) spent months cutting, pinning, sewing and polishing more than 150 costumes, scrutinizing every single Waltz of the Flowers skirt petal, every black Polichinelle pom-pom and every last crown spike for both Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
The marzipan skirts and hats worn in Act 2 feature “lace” inspired by a 1930s doily that designer Ian Falconer found on eBay. He put it into a plastic container so its sides would curl up, then carried it into the PNB costume shop and said, “This is the look I want.” The end result required 4,000 holes cut by hand for all the tutus and the headpieces.
Another piece of eye candy in the production: a sensual peacock skirt.
Costume shop manager Larae Theige Hascall fits dancer Ezra Thomson for his Spanish Hot Chocolate divertissement.
Jan Harvey-Smith and the entire scene shop worked off of Ian Falconer’s distinctive designs to create the vibrant décor of a New England country home from the 1830s. During performances, take a look at the top of the set, off to the side. In one of the “box seats” painted as part of the scenery, you’ll find Falconer’s signature creation—Olivia the Pig—taking in the show.