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Nutcracker 2013

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I went last night (11/30) and will have more to say after I finish my review, but wanted to let people know that the orchestra has recorded a CD of "their" Nut (including the interpolated vocal stuff in act 1) -- it's for sale in the lobby and on their website.

Nut has become a real multi-media event for families -- lots of stuff going on for kids in the lobby before the show and during the intermission, so that it almost went right by me when a couple got engaged in the main lobby during the break!

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I saw PNB's production for a decade wondering what obscure piece by Mozart it was, until I was sitting at the Met at a performance of "Pique Dame," from which I had only heard a couple of excerpts before that performance, et voila! I almost did a happy dance in the middle of the opera.

Edited to add:

PNB re-tweeted this tweet from a parent with photos:


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Talking with some colleagues lately, it’s all “how are you going to write about Nutcracker this year?” I’m lucky, since it’s an anniversary year for this production I got to lead with a little history. We’ve been seeing this production for 30 years, and it’s such a staple that I’d forgotten it was something of a gamble at the beginning. It cost more than they’d budgeted, and the board was worried – could they just do the first act of the new production, and the second act of the Christensen version that they’d been doing? Yikes!

Now this production is a very well-oiled machine, both in the theater and in the lobby. Like most companies, PNB recognizes that this pulls a large audience that only comes to the theater a couple times a year, and in many cases has small children that get fidgety easily. They’ve worked hard to make the whole experience into a ‘special event’ for them – there are photo opportunities all over the lobby, with statues of Sendak’s designs, carolers, an exhibit from the local newspaper’s Nutcracker coloring contest, special snacks… It’s kind of a surprise by the time you get inside the auditorium and there’s a ballet too!

Sendak and Stowell tell the original story of Princess Pirlipat and the Mouse King a couple of times in the first act as well as showing it in the designs, so that by the time we get to the second act we ‘read’ the triangle (Clara/Nutcracker/Pasha) very easily. We see it with tiny kids in the prologue, and again with company members as part of a masked entertainment for children. The Pasha runs the second act, taking the part of the Mouse King (he’s the first act Drosselmeyer) so it really emphasizes those relationships. Stowell takes the ‘adult Clara’ route, and give her the SPF music – there’s no Sugar Plum. But he and Sendak break the traditional SPF pas de deux up into its separate parts, and insert them throughout the second act, so it doesn’t really build on itself.

One of the nicest things about Nutcracker is the opportunities it gives to the entire company. This year PNB performs the ballet 31 times, and though a run this long puts stress on everyone it does mean that many dancers get a chance to dance some substantial stuff. November 30 we were already getting substitutions (Margaret Mullin replacing Rachel Foster as Flora) – I’m hoping that they can keep injuries to a minimum since they’ve got Sleeping Beauty coming up after Nut closes.

Opening weekend I got to see Kaori Nakamura and Benjamin Griffiths in the main roles – they gave a very sweet performance. Nakamura was playful in the second act, and Griffiths was just lovely. The technical virtuosity in these roles is subtle – there are opportunities to do splendid things, but the choreography seems built to accommodate a variety of skill sets, which is really useful in a ballet that’s lasted this long and has been performed by so many different people. Nakamura tempered some of her sharpness for Clara, and translated it into attentiveness – she gave a lovely sense of paying attention to where she was. And Griffiths gave one of the purest mime passages I’ve seen here – I doubt there was a person in the audience who didn’t understand the sign language.

In the first act Leta Biasucci gave a very bouncy reading of the Ballerina doll and Matthew Renko is back – whatever trouble he had, seems to be past now – his Sword Dancer was crisp and sharp. In the second act that weekend, Lindsi Dec has made some real headway as the Peacock. This role, like the danse du ventre solo in Stowell’s production of Swan Lake, works best if the dancer does what could be fairly kitchy material very, very seriously. In the past, Dec’s default approach to most challenges was to deal with the physical challenges before the interpretation – she was uniformly sunny and cheerful. More recently, though, she’s brought much more shading to her work, and this really serves her here. She danced Peacock almost like a runway model – very glamorous. Kyle Davis was light and zippy in the Commedia, along with Biasucci and Liora Neuville. The two women are often matched in small groups – there’s a superficial physical resemblance, but they have a subtle difference in timing that makes unison a difficulty. I think what’s happening is that they approach the downbeat differently – Neuville will finesses the time after the “1,” usually with her arm gestures, so that there seems to be a little echo going on – Biasucci stresses the accent a bit more so that she seems faster than Neuville. They’re both lovely, but they’re not absolutely the same, which is fussy in unison material. Mullin had a small bobble in the fouette sequence as Flora, but managed to transform it into a spinny moment that worked just fine during the first weekend. (second weekend she had the same difficulty, but wasn’t able to make the save quite as deftly)

In the second weekend I saw William Lin-Yee as Drosselmeyer/Pasha – he’s newer to the part and the mime seemed very freshly-coached (he made the implied magic trick in the prologue of opening the Nutcracker curtain very clear). He plays both roles as a younger man: he pouts more when he feels Clara has rejected him, and he’s more active as the Pasha. Angelica Generosa was especially dizzy in her specialty roles – getting carried away with the thrill of it all as an aunt in the party scene and adding a special bobbleheaded bounce to the Commedia. Even when she’s just a party guest, she’s always very legible on stage. Carli Samuelson, Christian Poppe and Eric Hipolito Jr. did a lovely job as the mask dancers in the first act – it’s deceptively simple, since it’s primarily variations on tendu battement, but like most baroque dancing, it’s the simple steps that are the most exposed. Biasucci danced the adult Clara (not sure if this is a debut), along with James Moore. They’re a good fit as partners, and seem to move in and out of supported stuff easily. Moore gives a more weighted version of the mime, leaning into some of the gestures almost as if he was speaking slang. It was interesting to see that the mice retainers in the second act turned their backs on him when he “said” that he killed the Mouse King – a nice touch of loyalty. As Peacock, Emma Love Suddarth was clean and articulate, but not quite sensual enough – I have a feeling that’s something that comes with repetition in this role.

Both big ensemble dances (Snow and Flowers) are typical of Stowell’s approach to ¾ time – he rarely uses a standard balance in a standard timing. The downbeat shifts around while the general tempo is quick. Snow starts fast and seems to get faster – there’s a moment about 2/3 through where one dancer pauses momentarily and then whips her arms around her, almost as if she’s churning the air full of snowflakes, and everything kicks up a notch. (I saw Brittany Reid in this part – she seems to have a mischievous look on her face right then)

The final denouement in this version of Nutcracker is pretty swift – Clara missed the boat with the prince (literally!) and the Pasha reveals himself as Drosselmeyer, so that she goes racing offstage. The action shifts back to her bedroom where we see her wake up from what she thinks is a bad dream, shake it off and go right back to sleep so quickly that you could miss it if you weren’t looking. But it made me think of the line from Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, when Scrooge tells Marley’s Ghost that he doesn’t believe in him because he might just be “a piece of underdone potato.” So much for the spirit world!

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Forgot to say earlier -- alongside a new CD of the score, they were selling DVD copies of their Nutcracker film in the lobby. The VHS version has been out of print for years -- I'm not sure what kind of deal they struck to get DVDs, but I was glad to see they had it.

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Forgot to say earlier -- alongside a new CD of the score, they were selling DVD copies of their Nutcracker film in the lobby. The VHS version has been out of print for years -- I'm not sure what kind of deal they struck to get DVDs, but I was glad to see they had it.

Thank you so much for pointing out that the Nutcracker DVD is finally available from the PNB shop (I checked Amazon, but they only have the VHS). I taped it from the original broadcast, but neither the tape nor the tape player has survived the years, and I've really missed having this version available. (Also picked up the Maillot/Ballets de Monte Carlo R&J as an extra Christmas present to myself.) thanks.GIF

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Russell and Stowell in recent years have never sounded happy about the film. I'm not sure if it's the way it was filmed or the business/distribution aspects. I'm glad it's available, though. It also has some aspects that are different from the stage version, including a long opening scene in Drosselmeier's workshop and having the dancer playing the adult Clara do the toy ballerina solo, shot inside a doll house.

The lobby looked like an ice dance warmup: many kids dressed up all sparkly and nice with very casual, but warm, waist-length jackets on top. The lobby was packed with kids and picture-taking, but in the top tier, a married couple crouched in back of the Clara/Prince poster with the cut outs for faces as their children looked on. Commented one, "Mom, Dad, you look so siiiilllllllly."

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A friend found this about the DVD on Amazon -- not sure what to click on to get it.

At long last, "Nutcracker, the Motion Picture", Carroll Ballard's film of the Pacific Northwest Ballet's Maurice Sendak designed production is available on an official Region One DVD from MGM, the film's current owner. However, the disc is part of Fox/MGM's manufacture-on-demand "Studio Classics" series. What this means is that you will receive a DVD-R of the film that has been burned just for you based on your order. That's OK, as we shall see, but some may be taken aback by the paucity of extras on the disc. Also, be warned that the disc may not play in anything other than a stand-alone DVD player. Playback on a computer, for instance, is not guaranteed, and since a DVD-R disc remains photosensitive even after it has been burned, keep it out of strong light.

The first thing you see on the disc after selecting the feature is a warning card that states that the film was mastered from the "best materials available". This is typically studio talk for "we can't find the negative or a decent inter-positive, or it has been destroyed, or the producers won't let us have it, or we don't want to pay to take the film out of the vault and rescan it". Fortunately, what they did have on hand is serviceable. The 16:9 widescreen presentation seems to be taken from a high quality print, it is clean and exhibits good color, but is very slightly soft throughout and has varying contrast with considerable grain seen in the shadows. It is possibly the same copy that has been used for the various cable TV entities and streaming services that show the film, although compared against the download available from Amazon, the DVD's color seems more accurate. There is little in the way of digital artifacts present. The audio is clear and well balanced two channel stereo. So technically speaking, this is far from the best transfer possible, but it's still solid enough to make it worth obtaining if all you have been watching over the years is the 24 year old Paramount VHS cassette. If you can find the film on a good streaming service you won't be picking up a great deal quality wise, but you will get your own permanent copy and one extra thing: the movie's trailer, interesting to the film's fans because it uses alternate shots and sound effects that do not appear in the feature.

The disc comes in a standard Amray box but for some reason, the front photo is not the Sendak illustration and logotype that was part of the movie's original promotional materials, but instead is of a generic "Clara" and a ballet corps that seems to be stock photography. The back cover has a still from the actual film.

It's a shame that MGM has so little faith in this picture that it cannot see its way clear to a conventional release with better extras and a more polished transfer (the film screams for a Blu-ray disc). I would have loved to hear a commentary track with Sendak, Ballard, Kent Stowall and the principal dancers, and perhaps some other material. But it seems that this will have to suffice.

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PNB is having a half-price sales on next Thursday's 2pm matinee (December 19) and both performances (2pm and 7:30pm) next Friday, December 20. (The text only mentions the 20th, but I clicked through the December 19 link from the page below, and the tickets are calculated at half price. The offer doesn't include the least expensive tickets or apply to the facility fee (included in the price), and the price displayed includes the discount.


An adult and child can see the "Nutcracker" from the back middle of the Second Tier with excellent sight for under $50. A family of four can see it for less than $100.

Prince and Clara casting (as always, subject to change):

Maria Chapman and Seth Orza, December 19 at 2pm

Kylee Kitchens and Andrew Bartee, December 20 at 2pm

Rachel Foster and Eric Hipolito Jr., December 20 at 7:30pm


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