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Knowing Nutcracker

Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Nutcracker'

by Dean Speer

November 27, 2009 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle

Comfort Food may provide temporary respite from the clatter and chatter of the world, but Pacific Northwest Ballet's 1983 Maurice Sendak/Kent Stowell "Nutcracker" creation better temporizes the inspiration and lift we collectively need for the long term.

I was most pleased to be able to take along a new Russian friend and her granddaughter to this, their first PNB "Nutcracker." The grandmother was thrilled to be able to get out of the suburbs and to be re-acquainted with high art and culture for the first time since immigrating to Washington, not knowing a word of English, 20 years ago.

Their interest was part of my delight in reveling in the unveiling of the 2009 run of PNB's unique and very spectacular production. This show gallops along, giving us scenes and scenery that invite us to say hello to the familiar and to find new details. Perhaps it was the angle from which I viewed the stage, but I was amused to see how the wife of the Foreign Guest (Claire Stallman) can – and does – play with the Ballerina Doll (Rachel Foster). Tonight, she was tilting the head of the [live] doll, taking its arms up (and down) to make various ballet port de bras positions. My wicked sense of humor kicked in, knowing that, per one of the honored traditions of the theatre, if this cast member wanted to see if she could crack up her colleague, this would be an effective and vulnerable place to do it. I'm not sure I could restrain myself as this person did.

Jordan Pacitti in the dual role of Drosselmeier/Pasha lent the right amount of zesty zeal to this lightly dark and sometimes mean-spirited character. I swear he was genuinely enjoying cracking his whip at the opening of the second act. This character is a good example of how one person's sense of humor is someone's else's practical-joke-in-bad-taste. He sets in motion the nightmare fantasy which inhabits the mind of the young and older/transformed Clara. She dreams of being with a prince, being bitten by a rat, and turning suddenly into an old maid. Drosselmeier knows this and not only gives her little brother a stuffed rat doll with which to annoy her, he has also arranged the performance of the same nightmare as a masque with three dancers portraying the three parts right smack in the middle of Clara's parents' Christmas Party. No wonder she goes to bed with bad dreams.

If any one subsequent to the original cast has made any part their own, among current performers, this would have to be Ariana Lallone, hands-down, as the Peacock of Act II. This is someone who "takes" the stage each time she steps onto it. When she *held* an attitude early on and only came down because she had to go on to the next step, this was truly an exciting demonstration of phrasing and control. Her four relevé arabesque turns were solid, well-defined, and the last one, nicely rotated and suspended.

Comforting too were the lead couple of Carla Körbes and her Nutcracker Prince/Cavalier Stanko Milov. In one audacious move, choreographer Kent Stowell tossed out the Snow King and Queen pas de deux, often inserted before the Snowflakes comes swirling and twirling on, with a duet for the transformed Clara and her savior Prince. This means they get a lot more to do. In addition to this pas, there is the traditional grand pas de deux of Act II, plus "introducing" themselves to the Pasha's court of Act II, and getting there along the way upon a too small sailing vessel that traverses choppy waters – and encounters some leaping (and very musical) dolphins along the way.

Körbes and Milov are what every ballet company needs and deserves –  dance artists who have top-drawer technique, sensitivity to phrasing, and – in this case – who take genuine enjoyment in dancing and love to move. Milov is a strong partner and pairs well with Körbes. His Act II solo was well-received.

As exciting as having two pas de deux is, for sheer dancing, nothing highlights this viewer's Nutcracker experience more than its two big group dance numbers – the Snowflakes from the conclusion of Act I, and the "Waltz of the Flowers." For those who know me, they know I'm happy when I report having enjoyed experiencing "Waltz of the [insert name of your favorite blossom here]" such as Waltz of the Petunias. Stowell is really adept at making interesting large-scale group dances. By interesting, I specifically mean ever-changing patterns, spicy and not dull steps, good use of compositional and choreographic tools, and an eye for keeping things fresh. As I’ve mentioned in years past, his Snowflake scene is one of the best anywhere and this year’s work of the corps de ballet in it is exceptional, showing precision, verve, and unison – and a sincerity of spirit. Experienced viewers can tell when cast members are feeling one attitude but pasting on another [“Here I am in yet another nutty Nutcracker...but I’m going to smile, smile, smile my little heart out anyway.”] PNB’s dedicated cast put themselves out there truly in the moment. They believe in what they are doing, and it shows.

For these two nuggets, there is all this – and more.

One more is Mara Vinson as Flora, the head bloom. This part well suits her technique, temperament, and what she excels in doing – allegro in this case; entre chats, grand jetés, fouettées, and having to move big and be intricate at the same time.

The Commedia [aka, Harlequin] of Benjamin Griffiths, Liora Reshef, and Rachel Foster is a good example of how steps can create characters, in this case, as "buffo" roles flirting. This pas de trois requires fearless dancers, precision timing, and superb dancing. Griffiths is among the best technicians on the planet and it was fun seeing his interpretation – and how he centers himself while moving and in position.

Kudos to the entire cast of corps members, soloists, principals, musicians, crew, staff, and the many volunteers it takes to pull such a big and complex show together so seamlessly.

When the teeth of the nutcracker set come snapping together at the conclusion of this ballet, you know that you have had one swell evening of dance, flavored with a bit of the "Where the Wild Things Are" atmosphere, and simmered with excellent dancing, tropical settings, and more than enough Comfort Food to last until 2010.

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