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Sendak, Stowell and the History of PNB’s Unique 'Nutcracker'

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Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Nutcracker, which opens tomorrow at McCaw Hall, is such a venerable holiday tradition for our region that it’s easy to forget that it was once considered a tremendous risk.

When Founding Artistic Directors (and married couple) Kent Stowell and Francia Russell took over the young Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) in 1977, each season seemed likely to be the last. “I think it was on the verge of collapse,” says Stowell.

At the time, PNB was performing a Nutcracker production based on George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography and using the same set design as the San Francisco Ballet. Stowell and Russell were convinced that a key step towards stabilizing the fledgling company (then housed in Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center) was to develop a unique Nutcracker that people would identify with PNB.

The original 1892 ballet, composed by Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Petipa, was based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 adaptation of a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Stowell wanted to return to Hoffman’s story and find what other interpretations had missed — a child’s anxiety about growing up.

For example, Balanchine had devoted his entire second act to the Land of Sweets. “Like what kids really want is a candy kingdom. That shortchanges children’s feelings about life,” says Stowell. The seed for one of ballet’s greatest ideas was planted when Russell saw in The New York Times that Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak had worked on a production of The Magic Flute for Houston Opera.

chinese-tigernut06-0455-700wBut Sendak took some convincing. When Stowell flew to New York to pitch the idea of working together to create a new Nutcracker ballet, Sendak confessed, “I’m not even sure I like ballet.” Fortunately, he was won over by what Stowell describes as “the rich part” of the process — the opportunity to devise characters and details that would make sense for the life of Clara, the main character.

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More than a candy land

For the next two years, Stowell says, “A really productive, wonderful, and personal relationship evolved out of Nutcracker. We went to [Sendak’s] Connecticut farm a couple of times, and he came out to Whidbey Island to work. We had a great time.” At dinners together, Stowell and Russell’s two youngest sons would pretend to be French waiters while their oldest son would share his own ideas for Nutcracker.

Stowell and Sendak worked to create a more realistic emotional world within the fantasy. The doubt and insecurity that children feel on the verge of maturity run throughout the story. Clara’s dream in the Prologue makes her a little afraid of her godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, who teases and torments her in Act One.

In a scene that may be scary for smaller children, the Nutcracker survives the battle against the giant Mouse King only with Clara’s help. Finally, in Act Two, when Clara hesitates to leave the magical land of her fantasy, she is left behind.

Sendak’s unique design details fill out the story. Stowell and Sendak envisioned Clara’s father as a diplomat, and filled the sets with chinoiserie and other signs of the family’s international existence. These objects, as well as Clara’s toys, became characters in the dances in Act II.

“We gave substantial thought to all of those elements to enrich the story and make it more rewarding to the viewer, in the sense that it would have more depth than just a candy land,” says Stowell.

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Sendak + Stowell = success

While the creative side of the process was a delight, the finances of the ballet were another matter. The production was a big new investment. “It was very scary,” says Stowell.

But when the ballet opened in 1983, it played to a 99 percent capacity audience — at that time, the largest crowd the company had ever drawn. Audiences immediately loved the deeper story and Sendak’s timeless, slightly off-kilter aesthetic. Nutcracker paid for itself the first year, doubling the company’s income. The new income allowed the company to take risks on more new ballets.

Nutcracker had an impact on Sendak as well. Stowell says, “It was a very spiritual experience for him. He had never been around ballet before, and he watched the training and rehearsals for Nutcracker. He said, ‘I had no idea how hard this is and how brave the dancers are.’”

Sendak’s distinctive style and rare ability to capture both whimsy and darkness in a way that children can relate to are critical components of PNB’s Nutcracker. When my daughter saw the PNB Nutcracker for the first time at the age of 4, she was so captivated that she would burst into applause at apparently random moments.

Although Sendak passed away in May, each year thousands of children are introduced to ballet the same way he was — through his vision of Nutcracker. And like Sendak, some of those children will find more than a holiday entertainment in the dance.

Stowell tells a story about getting a flat tire. When AAA showed up to fix the flat, the driver was certain he recognized Stowell. After trying to figure out where they might have seen each other, Stowell handed over his AAA card, and the driver said, “Oh! You’re Kent Stowell. You were my director when I was in The Nutcracker. That was one of the great experiences in my life.”

If you go ...

When: Nutcracker runs from Friday, Dec. 7 to Saturday Dec. 29. Show times for this year’s 30 performances are listed online. Arrive early to allow time for parking, pre-ordering intermission snacks, participating in pre-show activities, and collecting booster seats. Nutcracker performances run approximately two hours, including one intermission.

Where: Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer Street, on the north edge of Seattle Center. Booster seats can be borrowed at no cost, and binoculars can be rented for $5. Snacks are expensive at McCaw Hall. You can bring your own, but be sure to keep them sealed and well-stowed during the performance. No food is allowed in the auditorium.

Tickets: Tickets range from $25–$135; buy online at pnb.org. Every family member must have a ticket, but the price is discounted for children 12 and under. There are no bad seats at McCaw Hall — do not hesitate to buy the cheapest seats available. Group discounts are available.

Parking: The Mercer Garage is connected to McCaw Hall by a sky bridge. Rates vary from $5–$15 depending on events at Seattle Center. Other pay lots in the neighborhood have similar pricing. Street parking is limited to 4 hours, and hard to come by. Consider taking the bus — look online to plan your route.

Special events:

- Opening weekend activities: On December 7, 8 & 9, special activities including crafts, mini-dance classes, roaming magicians, Nutcracker characters, and carolers will be in the lobby for the hour before each performance. Classical KING FM and Music Center Northwest will also host their popular Instrument Petting Zoo at matinees on December 8, 9, 15 and 16.

- Family Matinee Nutcracker Suite: Can be preordered for $15/person for every matinee except December 8. During intermission, the “Nutcracker Suite” on the fourth floor will include the Trophy Cupcakes Sprinkle Station; marshmallows and toppings at the Hot Cocoa Station; a photo booth; a holiday appetizer buffet; and for the grownups, champagne and coffee.

- Nutcracker Brunch: The Nutcracker Brunch on December 8 costs $65 adult/$45 child and runs from 9:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.,with crafts, prizes and a mini-performance.

- Nutty Nutcracker: The Christmas Eve matinee allows dancers and stage crew to get a little creative. Expect some scene changes, improvisation, and surprise features. At past Nutty Nutcrackers, I’ve seen the dance of the snowflakes turn into a blizzard, gift exchanges between Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, and once, the Prince caught a fish from their boat!

Is your child Nutcracker-ready? A good rule of thumb is to ask whether the child can sit quietly through a two-hour movie. We started both of our kids at age 4, but I’ve seen younger children do just fine. You might also check out the number of other fine Nutcracker productions in our region, some of which are shorter and more affordable.

Tips for preparing

- Read E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, or the Maurice Sendak-illustrated version of the book called simply Nutcracker. Knowing what to expect can also help younger viewers feel brave during the more intense scenes, like the battle against the Mouse King.

- Review a scene-by-scene description of the dance on PNB’s website, where you can also download the Nutcracker Fun Pack for character cut-outs, games, and cookie recipes; and view a number of short “behind the scenes” videos about The Nutcracker and the dancers.

Particularly intense scenes: Although Herr Drosselmeier is a mostly comic figure, some children might find him frightening; the moment when everything grows to immense proportions is exciting for most viewers, but might be intimidating to some; and the battle scene against the Mouse King can be loud and intense. A filmed version of PNB’s Nutcracker is available on Netflix and from other outlets. Parents can preview the production for any scenes that might be frightening for their kids.

- Listen to the music! PNB recommends these two recordings of Tchaikovsky’s classic score: Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker (Favorite Excerpts from the Original Soundtrack Recording). London Symphony Orchestra — Charles Mackerras, Conductor. Telarc, 1990; and Nutcracker: Complete Score. London Symphony Orchestra — Charles Mackerras, Conductor. Telarc, 1990.

Photo credits: David Cooper for the 1983 image of Sendak and Stowell; Angela Sterling for the three production photos.

gemmaalexanderheadshotAbout the author: Gemma Alexander has been to PNB’s Nutcracker almost every year since 1993. This year will be especially memorable, as she will be introducing her youngest daughter, who just turned 4, to the tradition.

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