“The Nutcracker” is, more than any other, a ballet for children. So it’s completely appropriate that by combining the 60-year-old choreography of George Balanchine with the new designs of Ian Falconer, the Pacific Northwest Ballet has created a version of the holiday ballet seen from a child’s perspective. Sets, costumes, special effects, plot and Balanchine’s perfectly ordered choreography all speak from a kids’-eye view: outsized, playful, with a storybook ending.
The playful hits you first: Side panels flanking the “N” curtain are painted like theater boxes, inhabited by posh folks with long noses and a small pig in a striped shirt. Fans of “Olivia the Pig,” the children’s book for which Falconer is famous, will chuckle. But the ornate drops, complete with 3-D sconces, are so wildly opposite to the McCaw Hall modernity that everyone else will smile too.
Then comes the magic: A 3-D animated movie during the overture that flies you, “Polar Express”-style, over a snowy forest into a 19th century New England town and up the driveway of the neo-Grecian Stahlbaum house. Snowflakes whip into the screen like violin 16th notes, and the scene segues into a scrim with a real girl — Clara.
Here’s where the outsize begins. Falconer has created a world seen from a child’s height, with exaggerated foreshortening out of the living room corners, giant windows and enormous busts towering atop cabinets. But it’s not a scary Maurice Sendak vision. Instead, Falconer plays with palette and pattern like a preschooler: the Victorian olives and browns shot through with Clara’s candy-cane striped dress, the party mothers’ hairstyles ridiculously elaborate. This is a party for kids, with the ballet school dancers having a lot of fun with Balanchine’s stylized yet lifelike games, dances and fights. Clara (Isabelle Rookstool at the Sunday night show) is spoiled but engaging; Fritz (Dominic Helming) is hilariously misbehaved. As the tuft-haired Drosselmeier, Steven Loch was a little bland, but as his nephew (later the Nutcracker) Ethan Arrington gave a nuanced, poised performance.
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The orchestra played with their usual lightness and skill, including an exquisitely phrased violin solo during the “dream” interlude (that music is actually from “Sleeping Beauty”). After a battle between stiff soldiers and plush mice with ninja moves, Falconer grows not just the Christmas tree but the entire set, an “Alice in Wonderland” trick that reminds us squarely that this is all Clara’s dream. Snowflakes execute perfect Balanchine tableaux in a pale birch forest; the only thing wrong is Dale Chihuly’s enormous glass star, gaudy and grating.
It’s in the Land of Sweets that Falconer really plays with his colors. Candy-cane pink and green pillars joined by lace doilies, rich chocolate-and-aqua Spanish dancers (tight and snappy), lemon-and-pink Marzipan ladies (with 1950s air hostess hats and excellent pointe work), the amethyst-tutued Sugar Plum Fairy (an ever-graceful, kindly Laura Tisserand). It all clashes in a delightful, I-want-every-color kid way. Children will also love the fairies’ twinkling costumes, and the giant squishy chair Clara and her prince get to sit on.
If you’re not a kid, the highlight is Balanchine’s superb marriage of detail and big picture. Even as the Dew Drop Fairy (Kylee Kitchens, controlled and precise) bends and arches into elaborate steps, her Flowers (in breathtaking petal gowns of apricot-pink) form visual symphonies, with the ballet’s corps working in perfect synchrony. The Pas de Deux (Tisserand and Karel Cruz, light as air) soars in symmetrical bliss. The only dance disappointment is the Arabian peacock (Elizabeth Murphy), a frustrating split between languid Salome and uptight contortionist, and the Russian candy-canes, their 1954 choreography too tame for today’s athletic standards.
Even the ending of this “Nutcracker” is beautifully childlike. No, I won’t spoil it, but if you’re looking for symbolism or even closure, you won’t get it. What you will get is a storybook finish, reminding us that this is, in the end, one of ballet’s best stories.