Balanchine, Morris, and Byrd: A Delight in Three Nutcrackers
Three interpretations of The Nutcracker on Seattle stages demonstrate its adaptability for the tastes — and moods — of new audiences. The invigorated classic epic (at Pacific Northwest Ballet, through 12/28), a sassy spin-off and an elegant workshop (at the Paramount Theatre and On the Boards, both through 12/15) are all delightful, and distinct.
How or why The Nutcracker took hold as a mandatory part of the Christmas season for many is a mystery to me. It’s a weird story: rats invade a picture-perfect mansion and are fought back by toy soldiers; a girl falls for a nutcracker; and they abscond to a magical land with people dressed up as candies of the world. In comparison, a FRAGILE leg lamp or a ghost of a money-counter as Christmas classics sound like normal occurrences.
When I first saw The Nutcracker, in eighth grade, I fell asleep. It was the wrong show, the wrong time, the wrong person. (As you might recall from an earlier review, I’ve never fancied myself among those who “do the ballet.”)
This season, in a luscious classic version and two reinterpretations now 20-some years old, Seattle gets a taste of what the story can be: a playground for technical dance, festive design work, and imagination unbounded by a single storyline.
Pacific Northwest Ballet: George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, McCaw Hall, 11/29-12/28
However the whole thing got started, watching Pacific Northwest Ballet’s grand production of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker leaves no mystery of why it remains a holiday favorite. In the season where magic is said to abound, there’s plenty of theatre magic to see here. It’s the perfect complement between sentiment and stage.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s The Nutcracker is a visual feast. With film animation projected some 40 feet high, see-through walls, an enormous sparkling Christmas tree, massive ambrosia Jell-O molds — and of course the famous battle of the Rat King — there’s something to hold everyone’s focus, even if dance isn’t the first thing that draws them in.
To the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic score, the show opens like an animated Christmas movie. A towering projection guides the audience through the falling snow and over the picturesque town in cartoon form, before arriving at the front door of a sprawling mansion. The door opens, and the live staging begins: first, in the front room, where pictures tower above the children. Then, a stunning peekaboo into festive party preparations in the grand room behind, as the whole “wall” with those towering pictures becomes see-through.
We’re taken into the party, then into the night; and dreamland, as the tree grows taller than even the towering grand room will allow. Then it’s outside into the snow for the Act I finale; then it’s through the (surprisingly creepy) woods and into the Land of the Sweets for Act II. The whole elaborate set changes over with each move, but the transitions are seamless.
PNB’s version is designed by theatre maker/children’s illustrator Ian Falconer, and it shows. The set and scenes are envisioned through a sense of childlike wonder. The flurrying forest of the Waltz of the Snowflakes looks like something out of a richly painted children’s storybook. The land of the sweets, meanwhile, looks like someone crossed a Betty Crocker illustrated children’s cookbook of the 1950s — complete with Jello-O molds and malted glasses — with a Candy Land set, then blew the whole thing up to arena size. Colors are rich but not overwhelming. The costumes, which Falconer also designed, are just as vivid. It’s a visual playground throughout both acts.
Unsurprisingly, the movement is exquisite. Company members dance in harmony with precision. Dancers glide across the stage smooth as ice; soloists en pointe are breathtaking (including the Sugar Plum Fairy’s glide, aided by a bit of theatre magic); key waltzes (snowflakes and flowers) are lush.
Some of the denizens of the land of the sweets pose some problems, as PNB has been examining; but it is perhaps those attempts to peel back the stereotype that leaves some of those dancers (the Spanish characters symbolizing “hot chocolate” and the Chinese trope symbolizing “tea,” for example) with very little to do. I favor PNB’s vigilance in cutting back trope; but I remain concerned that the predominantly White company needs to face issues of representation along with adding creativity into the mix in the choreography of these parts.
Overall, the show is dazzling. It’s a grand entrance into the holiday season — whether for out-of-town guest or an in-town treat, a great choice for the days marching up to Christmas. (And yes, no one is more surprised than me at perhaps becoming one who “does the ballet.”)
Mark Morris Dance Group: The Hard Nut, The Paramount Theatre (Seattle Theatre Group), 12/6-15
Seattle-born, New York-based choreographer Mark Morris’s spin on The Nutcracker performs to Tchaikovsky’s famous score, but that’s about all that’s classic about it. Where PNB’s staging embellishes the classic, The Hard Nut seems to roll its eyes, in the most playful of ways, at the whole thing.
The Hard Nut is inspired but with attitude. It’s like someone watched The Nutcracker, took it as a challenge, and — with a smirk and a gleam in their eye — said, Oh yeah? Watch this.
The result is a sassy, bawdy ball, just as much at home at a gay bar as on a massive downtown stage.
If you can’t relate to the parade of polished children and well-behaved guests in a classic Nutcracker, you’re not alone. Morris’s are more recognizable. The kids are jerks, and the guests are even bigger ones: dumping mounds of coats on the maid, getting plastered, and groping and grabbing at each other. But the maid (played by Brandon Randolph, in drag) is nobody’s fool. Hers is the biggest presence on stage; and with equal heapings of sauce and sass, it’s clear she rules the roost.
In Act I, Morris (who also performs in the show) largely adheres to the classic Nutcracker story but changes its time, its mood, its attitude. There’s no question it’s a cohort of talented performers; the precision of the production confirms that. But The Hard Nut presents them in unexpected ways, with whimsy that pointedly shuns traditional ballet moves: twirling a finger, rather than twirling en pointe; flinging snow through the air, in giddy hops and flurries, rather than the traditional waltz through magically falling snowflakes.
The set (designed by Adrianne Lobel) and costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) are also divine. Costumes are elegant but updated, and with the same cheekiness that runs throughout the piece. (The maid’s traditional uniform is totally backless, for example. And party-goers look like an epic, upscale fusion of ugly Christmas party, That ’70s Show, and Rod Roddy’s sequined jackets.) The set in opening scenes is another pairing of retro and hyper-modern; it looks like someone drew it, very precisely, with a giant Sharpie. The transition to outsize (when everything grows giant as the dream begins) is fittingly dramatic: the stage is all black, until the enormity descends.
Act II receives much more revisions to the storyline through an added fairy tale, as suitors compete for the princess’s heart. Rather than finding the perfect glass slipper, they must crack an impossibly hard nut with their teeth. The fairy tale additions give some narrative substance to a second act that’s largely devoid of it in the classic. But with multiple princesses and ugly babies and carriages and a cat or something, the whole concept gets too convoluted. It’s not helped by bizarre staging used to introduce us to the land of the sweets: a giant electronic map that feels CIA-meets-Carmen Sandiego, purportedly to tell us where we’re headed. It overwhelms everything else on stage, and the lusciousness of the land of the sweets is nowhere to be found.
There’s a ton of room in Act II for Morris’s vivid imagination, shown off beautifully in the first act, to take both the fairy-tale competition concept and sweets-laden landscape and run with it. In many ways, the second act feels like an afterthought; and it’s a disconnected one at that. (A lively waltz of the wilted flowers is a nice exception.)
And yet the first act is so lovely it stands on its own. The Hard Nut is a cheeky, whimsical, attitudinal swat at Christmas tradition that, nonetheless, pays homage to the classics. It’s an awful lot of fun.
The Hard Nut closes today. You’ll have your chance at additional holiday sass with Seattle Theatre Group later this week, as Taylor Mac returns to The Moore Theatre with Holiday Sauce (12/19-20); info here. And find more sass from Morris in a different format; his autobiography, Out Loud, just came out this fall.
Spectrum Dance Theater: Donald Byrd’s The Harlem Nutcracker (workshop production), 12/12-15
The below refers to a workshop production. It should not be considered a review, but observations on segments of a work in progress.
The Nutcracker is a fantasy told with nary a word, relying on elaborate pantomime, dance, and visual cues to tell a story that’s proven surprisingly timeless. So how does it hold up when the story changes?
In Donald Byrd’s case, beautifully. The Harlem Nutcracker replaces a White child pining after a toy with a Black matriarch pining after her recently deceased husband; an unrealistic upper-crust guest list with a quartet of families, a few members of which have some axes to grind; and the Land of the Sweets with a performance hall based on the Cotton Club. Jazz arrangements replace the traditional Tchaikovsky score.
Balancing the distinct sense of loss from her late husband (who appears in flashbacks, and sits with her during the second act’s performances) with the joy and contentment at seeing her family all together around the tree (even as she occasionally has to separate some spats) comprises much of the emotion of the work. They’re themes Byrd seems drawn to, with a premiere work, Love and Loss at Pacific Northwest Ballet, a recent example. (Read NWT’s review here.)
This reworking of his Harlem Nutcracker comes after a long hiatus, in which performances of it ceased 18 years ago. Byrd fashioned the work with his earlier company, Donald Byrd/The Group, where it was a major hit. It also bankrupted the company, thanks to what appeared to be a story of too far too fast. (You can read about the original in the NYTimes here, and here, and here; and the Seattle Times here.) This remount thus comes with some emotional baggage which, Byrd says, kept him away from the piece for many years. But audiences — and educators, and Spectrum’s board and staff — wanted it back, hungry for a Nutcracker with better representation than others out there. Byrd finally relented.
His original Harlem Nutcracker, created when he lived in New York, centered on a Black family and its traditions. This made-in-Seattle version still does, but is more “inclusive” in a way Byrd deems more representative of the place and the time. The cast features dancers of various races — much like Spectrum’s company itself — and includes a Black couple and interracial couples. (At least from the workshop performance, this worked; though the decision to center the lightest-skinned person on stage as Dewdrop — the principal dancer in the Waltz of the Flowers — is not the artistic choice I would favor.) The original also included darker scenes: among them, tumult from the Civil Rights movements, and grappling with the inevitability of death. The workshop focuses on two significant, but more uplifting, scenes: the party in Act I, and the Land of the Sweets in Act II. Presumably darker scenes will return over subsequent phases.
This reworking of The Harlem Nutcracker will have its premiere in 2021 — the work’s 25th anniversary — in Seattle. The workshop series — of which this “phase one” is an important step — is a rare chance to watch a master choreographer’s work in development.
In the meantime, Byrd shows no signs of narrowing his focus. The choreographer is known for his work confronting social injustices in the present (read NWT’s review of one of such recent works here), and his Spectrum Dance Theater will take on climate injustice in a series of new works this season. Not to mention, Byrd’s new choreography with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on now; his recent showing at PNB; and ongoing “Occurrences,” smaller-stage performances. And for a sense of the scope of Byrd’s career thus far, there’s a stunning retrospective on now at the Frye Art Museum, through January 26.
Note: this workshop run of The Harlem Nutcracker is sold out, and has been before it opened. But there were several open seats on opening night; you might try your luck on standby.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (Pacific Northwest Ballet) runs through 12/28 at McCaw Hall, at the Seattle Center. Tickets $27-$201; showtimes and info here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut (Mark Morris Dance Group) runs through 12/15 at The Paramount Theatre, in Downtown Seattle. Tickets $35-$105; showtimes and info here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available on the main floor. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Donald Byrd’s The Harlem Nutcracker (Spectrum Dance Theater) runs through 12/15 at On the Boards, in Lower Queen Anne. Tickets are pay-what-you-can (sliding scale for all) (wait list availability possible, day of show only); info here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall; theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.