Arts & Culture

Pacific Northwest Ballet brings retro choreography, new design to ‘Nutcracker’

Kate Monthy as the Snow Queen in Tacoma City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”
Kate Monthy as the Snow Queen in Tacoma City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” Courtesy

There are a lot of reasons you might go to “The Nutcracker.” Maybe it’s a family tradition, or to see someone you know onstage. It might be the dancing, the luscious sets and costumes, or maybe the music is your favorite part. But some folks this year will be trekking up to Seattle to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of this holiday staple simply because it’s different. After 32 years of the unique Stowell-Sendak production, the company switches this year to George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography and new designs by Ian Falconer. For both company and audience, that’s a big change.

154 New costumes in the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new version of the “Nutcracker.”

The first difference is obviously the scenery and costumes. Used to the imaginative, quirky Maurice Sendak world of candy-colored drapes and toys grown oversize, the “Nutcracker” world Falconer is imagining is a whole new look. The author is best known for his illustrated children’s book series “Olivia the Pig,” where soft, realistic lavender-and-pink scenes offset Olivia’s trademark licorice-red dress. But Falconer’s also a respected theatrical designer, with companies like the Lyric Opera, the Los Angeles Opera and the New York City Ballet under his belt, plus 30 covers for the New Yorker magazine. Spending weeks over the previous year as the ballet’s artist-in-residence, Falconer helped the company re-create a set that infuses 19th century New England with saturated purples, turquoises and lavenders, and a stripy red dress for Clara that would make Olivia jealous.

More than 50 craftspeople worked to create 154 new costumes, helped out by the workshops at Seattle Children’s Theater and Seattle Repertory Theatre, and involving mind-blowing numbers like 640 black pompoms on the polchinelles’ costumes, 697 petals on the Waltz of the Flowers costumes and 4,000 holes cut by hand into the “lace doily” tutus of the Marzipan dancers. The 22 drops — including a corridor scrim (transparent drop) featuring historical “Nutcracker” figures like Balanchine and Tchaikovsky — took 35 people to paint. There’s an animated 3-D video for the overture, and a Chihuly chandelier as Christmas star.

The next big change is in the ballet itself. For the first time in three decades, Seattle folks will get to see “Nutcracker” choreography and a plot that’s actually inspired by the original Russian version in 1892 — the same kind of choreography that most other companies have been doing all along. Choreographer George Balanchine, whose 1954 version at the New York City Ballet kick-started America’s love affair with “The Nutcracker,” danced in the ballet in 1919 as a teenager in the Mariinsky Theater, where it had premiered just three decades earlier.

Drawing on those memories (and on some of the original choreography itself, as New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay has pointed out), Balanchine created a work that continues to inspire “Nutcrackers” all around America. Now trademarked, the Balanchine “Nutcracker” also requires staging experts like Judith Fugate, who danced under Balanchine alongside Pacific Northwest Ballet director Peter Boal, and now travels the world as répétiteur for the George Balanchine Trust.

So that’s a whole new “Nutcracker” of steps for the company — including the 140 children in the production — to learn.

Peter Boal grew up with the Balanchine production … and wants to share the magic with audiences (here.)”

Gary Tucker, Pacific Northwest Ballet media relations manager

“Balanchine’s dances are sublime,” Boal says in his program notes. “The evolving patterns of his choreography offer us equal access to individual dancers and elegant designs.”

Will audiences notice the difference? Yes. For starters, they’ll see the traditional Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, which was jettisoned by Kent Stowell and Sendak. Actual children dance as Clara and her Nutcracker Prince, where in Stowell’s version the girl-Clara later becomes a company principal, able to handle the more difficult choreography, with an adult Prince as her consort. Drosselmeier is just a gift-giving godfather, rather than an omnipotent toymaker who controls the Land of Sweets as its Pasha. And although some interpretations stand — the Arabian dancer as a peacock, for instance — some are new to Seattle (though not to the original), like Mother Ginger with eight tiny bonbon dancers (Polichinelles) under her enormous skirts. And while in the Stowell/Sendak version the whole thing ended up as just a dream, this one is more ambiguous.

It is in the eye of the viewer to determine (if it is real or a dream). That is one of the joys of watching story ballets — to have each person get their own experience.”

Jo Emery, director, Tacoma Performing Dance Company

Why make the switch? For Boal, who spent 30 years dancing Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” from age 10 to dancing the Cavalier, the reason is both personal and sentimental.

“Peter has been artistic director for 10 years now and wanted to put his stamp on the company’s annual holiday production,” guesses Gary Tucker, media relations manager for the ballet. “He grew up with the Balanchine production … and wants to share the magic with audiences (here.)”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Ballet Northwest

What: Olympia’s major “Nutcracker,” and Washington’s oldest ballet company, the Ballet Northwest production this year features former Cirque du Soleil dancer Gerard Theoret as Drosselmeyer, plus one of the biggest casts in the region and professional-level sets and costumes.

Information: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11-12 and 18-19; 2 p.m. Dec. 12-13 and 19-20. $14-$33 (student rush one hour before curtain). Washington Center for Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia. 360-753-8586,

Dance Theatre Northwest

What: Presented in the form of a bedtime story, Dance Theatre Northwest’s version is updated each year, and the abbreviated form is ideal for young children.

Information: 2:30 and 7 p.m. Dec. 12, 4 p.m. Dec. 13. $11-$26. Mount Tahoma High School auditorium, 4634 S. 74th St., Tacoma. 253-778-6534,,

Metropolitan Ballet

What: Alone of all the local companies, Metropolitan Ballet offers an alternative to “The Nutcracker” that’s in keeping with the religious meaning of Christmas: a “Nativity Ballet” that tells the story of the birth of Jesus through dance.

Information: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Dec. 4), 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Free (reserve in advance). Mount Tahoma High School auditorium, 4634 S. 74th St., Tacoma. 253-472-5359,

Pacific Northwest Ballet

What: Superb professional dancing, higher ticket prices, traffic and parking hassles and a theater you need opera glasses for aren’t the only hallmarks of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” This year the company reverts to the more traditional plot (based on the Russian original) and choreography (Balanchine), with new sets by Ian Falconer.

Information: Various times through Dec. 28. $25-$156. McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 521 Mercer St., Seattle. 206-441-2424,

Studio West Dance Academy

What: The academy will present a fresh take on the production, combining traditional ballet with some comical surprises.

Information: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 17, 7 p.m. Dec. 18, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 19, and 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 20. $16-$25. Minnaert Center for the Arts, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia. 360-753-8586,

Tacoma City Ballet

What: This is the only production south of Seattle with a live orchestra and women’s chorus (for the snow scene), and the only one in the Northwest that includes a prequel, telling the Hoffman backstory of just why Clara’s Nutcracker is an enchanted prince. The main ballet sticks closely to the Russian original, including replica sets and costumes.

Information: 3 p.m. Dec. 12-13 and 19- 20. $15-$100. Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma. 253-272-4219,,

Tacoma Performing Dance Company

What: Using three designer backdrops, this “Nutcracker” combines traditional choreography with contemporary dance in the snow scene and “Dancing with the Stars”-type ballroom dancing for both the Party scene and the Land of Sweets dances.

Information: 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 12; 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Dec. 13. $20-25. Stadium High School Performing Arts Center, 111 N. E St., Tacoma. 253-861-4865,,

Washington Contemporary Ballet

What: New director Nathan Cook directs and dances the Nutcracker/Cavalier in this full-length production with company and school dancers.

Information: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Stadium High School Performing Arts Center, 111 N. E St., Tacoma. $25 adults; $20 senior, student; $15 ages 5 and younger; free for veterans at 253-302-4172,