When I heard that Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) was switching from Kent Stowell’s beloved adaptation of Balanchine’s famous Nutcracker to the 1954 original, I felt like I had lost a close friend. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of Balanchine. He is the king of ballet choreography. But I grew up with the excitement of Kent’s creation. I was in hundreds of those performances over the years, and my enthusiasm never diminished. I loved the production, the dancers’ camaraderie, and the way Kent greeted each one with an ever-present sparkle in his eyes. I danced in his last Nutcracker performance at the old Seattle Opera House, and his first one christening McCaw Hall. For me, that production was home. So I felt a certain loss to see it mothballed, but I was eager to compare the old and the new PNB Nutcrackers.
Now that I have, I have to be honest—I’m basically Team Stowell. But I’m trying to make this critique unbiased, so I’m starting with what impressed me about PNB’s new Nutcracker. The beautiful costumes created by author/illustrator Ian Falconer, with their candy-cane striped embellishments, were enchanting…
The characters in Act II were magical…
And the choreography coupled with the costumes in that act was stunning.
That was true even for the roles of the young dancers.
But here’s why I will always be Team Stowell―nothing in the new production compares to the way Kent captured the imagination and filled the entire stage in Act I. Highlights include his clever concept of Clara’s dream opening the show, the intricate social swirl at the party, and the explosive excitement created by the gigantic Mouse King, the Nutcracker’s daunting teeth and the ensuing battle.
In addition to the lead characters, the stage became progressively packed during that scene with carefully-orchestrated fighting mice, rifle-wielding toy soldiers in formation, charging cavalry, and a cannons larger than those firing them. All of these parts were played by student-dancers, yet Kent trusted them with his complex choreography. One misstep, and there would have been a major collision. That reality always mesmerized audiences.
Kent created clever interwoven stories, like Mother Mouse–complete with her bustier, heels, and sassy walk–who became enraged when Clara inadvertently bumped into her baby, and then started the war by summonsing her husband, the Mouse King. Mother Mouse was one of the favorite roles I danced.
Kent, together with author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, infused many of the costumes with humor…like the fighting mice with dead cats around their shoulders.
But what hit me the hardest while watching the new PNB staging of Balanchine’s Nutcracker was how grateful I was to have been a part of its magnificent predecessor.
And even though I am a steadfast member of Team Stowell, I am also grateful to know that there are PNB dancers who will forever be Team Balanchine because of the incredible memories they’re building now.