Review: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’

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nut2018 is not what it seems

The Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” delivered everything I love about the holiday season: sweets, excitement, romance, and a magical feeling in the air. “The Nutcracker” is one of the most popular classic Christmas stories, possibly due to its captivating music and joyous celebration of imagination and the bittersweet flavor of growing up. 

Balanchine’s choreography for “The Nutcracker” was first performed in 1954, but the original ballet premiered in 1892 with choreography by Lev Ivanov. Today, 126 years after the first premiere, people still flock in droves to see this magical production, and with good reason. “The Nutcracker” is a masterpiece, and this year’s production by the PNB not only lives up to expectations, but goes above and beyond by adding elements to the performance that make it feel modern and enticing all over again.

 The PNB made a bold choice by mixing traditional ballet with projections of gorgeous digital scenes. The ballet begins with a bright star and then zooms down slowly over a snowy forest as if the audience has become a bird swooping in to spy on the humans who will soon dance across the stage. Using this technique to set the scene, the set designers made the whole setting transform in an instance, leaving the audience in awe.

One of the brilliant things about using the projection of digital film is that it provides a sense of world-building for the audience. We are not merely dropped in to the middle of the action, where Clara Stahlbaum and her brother Fritz wait outside the doors of the parlor. Instead, we see the snowstorm outside, the mice on the forest floor making their way toward the house for their impending battle with the Nutcracker, and the carriages which will deliver the guests and godfather Drosselmeier.

The animation makes the first act feel so real that the fantastical second act feels like a true trip to another universe. The audience was so involved in the story from the first moments that when seven large, animated mice opened the front doors of the home, the audience collectively said, “ew,” out loud and giggled.

In addition to a remarkable set design, the PNB’s costumes were award-worthy. The fabrics glistened and sparkled, and the colors popped across each character’s design. My eyes were always drawn to the fine details of the costumes, like the thousands of hand-cut holes in the lace tutus of the Marzipan dancers and the crisp jingle of the peacock dress with colors that had an electric effect.

This production is unique to Seattle because local craftspeople, carpenters, painters, and animators created almost everything the audience sees on stage. According to the official blog of PNB there are 640 black pom poms on the eight Polichinelle costumes, and 760 petals on the flower costumes. Minute details like these transported me into the fantasy, leaving my head twirling like the ballerinas on stage. 

The Balanchine version of “The Nutcracker” is choreographed in a way that focuses on the child dancers for the first act of the performance. In other reviews of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, I have seen complaints about the amount of stage time the children have in comparison to the adults. Personally, I think the child dancers in this production were excellent and were able to keep up with their adult counterparts. I never noticed a child dancer missing their mark or getting left behind, despite participating in complex and demanding dances. The children’s choreography is in no way simplified, and the young dancers are extraordinary, making the dances seem like child’s play.

The PNB’s “The Nutcracker” is a light-hearted, sweet holiday experience for people of any and every age. It was everything I hoped for in a Nutcracker production, and so much more. I had chills and goosebumps from the moment the screen rolled up, through the waltzes and pirouettes, to the delight and warmth of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s romantic dance with her Cavalier in the last act.


Reach writer Midori Blanchard at Twitter: @MidoriNileah

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