It’s the opening weekend of Ballet Northwest’s “The Nutcracker,” and the dancers are not the only stars in the 34th annual production.
Making their debut this year are new sets for the Kingdom of Snow and the Land of the Sweets — layers of elaborately hand-painted fabric that create the illusion of a snowy forest and a grand pink palace that’s the stuff of a child’s dreams.
“The charm of ‘Nutcracker’ is not just the dancing,” said Jill Carter, who designed the new sets — in fact, all of the sets for the production. “It’s the whole spectacle that is so exciting.”
Carter’s work has been a big part of the spectacle since her first design for the Land of the Sweets 19 years ago. In the years since, she’s designed the rest of the sets for the Tchaikovsky ballet.
For this year’s production, she redesigned her earliest creations, the sets for the second half of the ballet, in which Clara, inspired by the nutcracker she’s received for Christmas, dreams of a journey to a magical place.
The revamped palace, inspired by the Art Nouveau period as well as French ironwork, features elaborate candy decorations and other intricate details that bring the huge backdrop into proportion with the human body. The snow scene echoes the style of Japanese woodblock prints.
Carter, the resident designer at Olympia Family Theater and former resident designer at Harlequin Productions, worked on the new “Nutcracker” designs for a year and a half.
Her process included painting pieces of the scene at one-quarter size and constructing complete scale models of the sets at a scale of 1/2 inch to 1 foot.
The paper models hang from dowels on a model stage in Carter’s dining room. Tiny cardboard cutouts of dancers stand on the stage, putting the display in perspective.
Painting the full-size sets took 1,900 hours and involved 16 professionals and more than 100 volunteers who worked over 12 weeks in the former Alpine Experience building downtown.
One of Carter’s talents is leading such efforts, said Ballet Northwest founder Bud Johansen, who plays the grandfather in the ballet. Ken and Josie Johnson now run the ballet company and direct “The Nutcracker,” but Johansen and his wife, Mary Johansen, still choreograph some scenes.
“She gets people together to paint, and she gets people to do things that they didn’t even realize they could do,” he said in a phone interview. “People have a great time working with her.”
Johansen himself has been working with Carter since 1986, when he hired her to work backstage for “The Nutcracker.”
It was not only her first job in professional theater but also her first experience with “The Nutcracker,” which she watched from the wings in between her work changing sets.
At the time, she was a freshman studying environmental science at The Evergreen State College and had a work-study job as a scenic artist. She’d never done theater before college and was chosen for the job based on her skill as an artist.
Johansen, who taught dance and performing arts at the college, came into the scene shop looking for someone to help run sets for the Ballet Northwest production, and Carter volunteered.
“After I worked with him on that first production, I was like, ‘I’m sold,’ ” she said.
She’s been working in theater — and with “The Nutcracker” — ever since.
“I love the collaborative nature of theater and the experience of a bunch of people in an audience seeing a set for the first time,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”
And she loves “The Nutcracker.”
“I hear that music, and it gets me so excited,” she said. “It takes me back. It’s such a magical production. It’s so much about fantasy, and the music is so imbued with the holiday fun spirit.”
Ballet Northwest’s ‘The Nutcracker’
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus Dec. 15 and 16; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, plus Dec. 16 and 17
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
Information: 360-753-8586, washingtoncenter.org/bnw