I must have been about seven when my parents stuffed me into a suit and made me sit through the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s The Nutcracker. I remember a rat king, a fair bit of swashbuckling, cannons erupting, some dude with an eyepatch, the old Opera House’s grandeur (more a matter of scale than precise adornment), and little else.
So Saturday, some 24 years later, when I returned to McCaw Hall, my expectations were minimal, and aside from my deeply subjective memorial scraps (that “rat” is actually a mouse, and in my memory all the dancers were adults), my entire association with The Nutcracker was through Tchaikovsky’s immortal music.
PNB began producing this version of The Nutcracker in 2015, after a 32 season run of its Kent Stowell and Maurice Sendak production. The new take combines George Balanchine’s choreography with PNB artistic director Peter Boal’s New England childhood. It begins, somewhat oddly, with video projected onto a screen. The camera flies through snowy, 3D animated woods for quite some time before arriving at a home and pushing through the front door and the actual live ballet getting underway.
The story’s general beats are all in place: a Christmas eve party, Clara and her nutcracker, creepy godfather Drosselmeier, then Clara’s extended dream with a mouse battle and Sugar Plum Fairy. The sets by children’s book author and illustrator Ian Falconer achieve epic whimsy. The plot is quite thin, easily digestible for kids, a frame for all that resplendent dance.
But watching it again I was struck by a few things. One, Tchaikovsky’s score performed live is majestic. Two, the second act has a clear imperialistic bent: Two rich Germanic kids are seated on a throne and have a parade of “exotic” dances performed before them, symbolizing various delicacies. The Chinese “tea” and Arabian "coffee" dances, especially, made me and my friend who joined me outright uncomfortable. She’d never been to The Nutcracker and ceased any applause at that point, the painfully stereotypical costumes and whole pageantry-of-the-Other feeling rather irresponsible for a contemporary dance company. This imperialism is part of the original, which was written in 1891-1892 (itself based on an 1816 German story), toward the end of the Russian Empire, but performing it today for impressionable kids needlessly perpetuates the problem. Adults can situate something in history. Kids can't.
But perhaps I was struck most by how returning years later artfully merged with the actual text. To see The Nutcracker as a kid is to be transported through the eyes of your equal into a sensory confection. But Clara remains your eyes, no matter your age. At the start, you look through the key hole with her in on a grand glittering Christmas tree (through a deft bit of staging where the wall and doors are projected onto a see-through screen) and your gaze and hers fuse. She spends much of the piece, like you, a spectator. It heightens the narrative inequities but also your childlike glee. So when that Christmas tree began to grow, I saw it threefold: as a childhood memory (I do, now, remember an escalating tree), as an adult spectacle, and as someone, through the magic of narrative, floating elusively between worlds.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
Nov 29–Dec 28, McCaw Hall, $60–$141
This article was written about the 2018 production. Dates and prices have been updated for 2019.