“The Nutcracker” is the most well-known ballet in the entire classical repertoire and every year, children around the world are enchanted by battling mice, a Christmas tree that grows almost to the sky and a visual feast of candy-colored costumes.
Among the most beloved of all “Nutcrackers” is the one Kent Stowell and Maurice Sendak created 30 years ago for Pacific Northwest Ballet. But this “Nutcracker” almost didn’t happen.
Stowell’s wife and his PNB co-artistic director, Francia Russell, came up with the idea to approach Sendak but the children’s author wasn’t at all interested at first. For one thing, he “hated” ballet; for another, he didn’t want to follow someone else’s story.
But Stowell persuaded Sendak that they could completely rethink the tale so that it wouldn’t be like any other “Nutcracker,” and Sendak eventually agreed.
Together, they infused the ballet with dramatic effects that complement Tchaikovsky’s lush score. They also created a kaleidoscope of roles for all levels of students in PNB’s schools.
The result was a “Nutcracker” that premiered to national acclaim in December 1983 and has been delighting audiences ever since.
One of the things that makes the Stowell-Sendak “Nutcracker” so appealing, especially for children, is that Clara, the child who receives a toy nutcracker as a Christmas gift, is the central character.
In many other productions, Clara is almost an afterthought and the focus is on the adult roles. But the essence of this “Nutcracker” is that every scene and every event is seen through Clara’s eyes. The oversized scurrying mice, the enormous, twinkling Christmas tree and the magical transformation of the nutcracker into a prince reflect every little girl’s fears and fantasies.
The other most dramatic departure from other “Nutcrackers” is Sendak’s magnificent sets. Sendak understood that for children, there is no boundary between dream and reality, and his set design is a brilliant blend of fancy and mystery.
In a truly inspired move, Sendak created a scene that connects the first act to the second. Besides providing a logical transition between the plot-driven first act and the pure-dance second act, the scene also provides an added treat. If you look closely enough, you can spot a few “wild things” in the background.
Sendak’s sense of fun extends to other parts of his design as well. Audiences can make a game out of spotting the other things he has hidden in the sets and costumes — more mice, a bust of Mozart, a peacock.
And if you look closely enough, you can see that Clara’s second-act tutu is almost identical to the one the ballerina doll sports in the first-act party scene.
As much fun as PNB’s “Nutcracker” is for the audience, it’s even more so for the more than 200 kids who perform in it each year. Drawn from PNB’s two ballet schools, some of the children become so comfortable with the ballet that, according to PNB staff, they sometimes give directions to the professional cast.
“The Nutcracker” opens with a matinee at 2 p.m. Nov. 30 and continues with 30 performances at various times through Dec. 29 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle.
Tickets are $39 to $142, available online at www.pnb.org/Season, by calling 206-441-2424 or at the box office at 301 Mercer St., Seattle.