Perhaps one key to the enduring popularity of “The Nutcracker” in a world of sound bites and streaming video is the ballet's pace.
“It’s one dance, the next, the next,” said Josie Johnson, artistic director of Ballet Northwest, which opens its version of the holiday classic tonight. “ ‘The Nutcracker’ has shorter pieces of music with lots of color and action.”
And Ballet Northwest’s production packs in even more action than the typical production.
“With some choreographers, there’s not as much dancing happening; there’ll be times when you are just hearing the beautiful music,” said Johnson, who shares artistic direction and choreography duties with her husband, Ken Johnson. “The older audience members would definitely appreciate just listening and looking at the scene, but with so many children in the audience, we like to keep the dancers moving all the time.”
The pacing suits modern attention spans, and it helps the company use the cast of 200, including Ballet Northwest’s 70-dancer company, guest artists from Seattle and a large group of young local dancers.
“It’s a record number of dancers this year, so it’s really exciting,” Josie Johnson said. “It made casting challenging.”
This year, there’s even dancing during the overture.
“We added a little prologue there,” Ken Johnson said. “We created a fun scene with the maids preparing for the party scene. It’s really beautiful music and we were able to create more opportunities for dancers without making the ballet any longer.”
Other recent additions: Angels dance during the overture for the second act, and the rats dance between the party scene and the fight scene in Act I.
“It’s a scene where traditionally, there’s not as much going on,” Ken Johnson said. “We added the rats on stage and running through the audience to keep the pace moving.”
Another highlight this year is likely to be a Hungarian dance in Act II, Josie said. “Last year, we had a French dance, and this year, we decided to mix it up and do a Hungarian dance. It’s an energetic dance with 16 female dancers and a lead male dancer.”
“Many of the dances in Act II have new choreography and costumes,” Ken said. “We do that to challenge our dancers and to keep things fresh for the audience.”
“We follow the traditional plot,” he said, “but we really try to maximize all of the scenes so there’s not a lot of downtime. It’s really full of dancing and acting.
“We really make sure that in today’s busy world, it keeps flowing and keeps the audience engaged.”