Pacific Northwest Ballet debuted a new version of the holiday classic last year, and children are responding. Find out what makes this version special. Plus, watch videos on how the mice come together and the reindeer fly.
A year ago, Pacific Northwest Ballet debuted its new holiday “Nutcracker,” with choreography by George Balanchine and designs by Ian Falconer. Like the previous edition, the long-running Maurice Sendak/Kent Stowell version, it has numerous roles for young dancers from PNB’s School: 140, or two casts of 70 students each. Earlier this month, seven of those students — all veterans of both versions — gathered around a table to talk about their experiences with the new “Nut,” and what they learned about pompoms, jingle bells and nonedible snow.
What’s different about this new version?
“This ‘Nutcracker’ is much more lively!” said Professional Division student Jade Butler, 19, who’s been dancing in PNB’s “Nutcracker” since 2007. Balanchine’s version, she said, “is really musical — it’s all about the music when you’re dancing his choreography.”
“I feel like the kids get to do a little more,” said 10-year-old Owen Odegard, a three-year veteran of the Act I party scene (who’ll alternate in the role of naughty brother Fritz this year). “We get to do more steps.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet, Nov. 25-Dec. 28, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$190, $22-$171 for children 12 and under (206-441-2424 or pnb.org).
“I think in George Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker,’ Drosselmeier is a little friendlier,” said Mimi Heffernan, 11, who’s alternating in the lead role of Clara.
How did the new costumes work out?
“I was surprised that I had a very hard cone dress,” said Kendra Ko, 10. Last year, she was one of the bell-skirted Angels whose gliding procession opens Act II. “You have to hope not to fall, because if you fall, you can’t necessarily get back up without help.” (Did she, or any other Angel, ever fall? “No.”)
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“I was a Polichinelle last year,” said Mimi, referring to the children who emerge from Mother Ginger’s enormous skirt. “Our skirts were covered in pompoms, and almost every performance, pompoms would fall off on stage.”
“The new costumes weren’t as itchy,” Owen said. “These ones are way more colorful, and the party girls’ dresses are really big. I think that’s kind of fun.”
Andre Alabastro, another 19-year-old PD student, didn’t have a costume last year: He was Bed Boy — “the magic of the show” — who’s underneath Clara’s bed and makes it move around. (“It’s difficult; you can’t see anything.”) This year, he’ll be a father, a Spanish dancer and a mouse — and anticipates needing a little practice with the mouse head. “They’re harder than the last one,” he said of the head, which sits atop the dancer’s head, with holes for visibility in the mouse’s throat. (“The old one,” explained Jade, “was literally a helmet — you’d look through the nose.”)
Ten-year-old Hank Flandreau has a similar challenge: As the Nutcracker Prince, he’ll perform under the massive Nutcracker head. “I think that’s going to be kind of hard to dance in,” he said. He’s also got a quick change backstage, “from the Nephew costume into the Prince costume, and then the Nutcracker costume over that.” Mimi, also, will make a lightning-quick change backstage, from Clara’s party dress into her nightgown.
Last year, did you ever find yourself instinctively dancing the other version’s choreography?
“You just have to get in the zone,” Jade said. “It’s really easy to make that mistake because of our muscle memory. You have to stay in the mindset: this is what I’m doing now.”
What’s your biggest challenge in the show?
“Trying not to overdo something,” Owen said, “like not pulling Clara’s hair too hard.”
“I haven’t practiced on the bed yet, but it’s pretty high,” Mimi said. “I’m going to have to work at jumping up on it and looking graceful at the same time.”
“Being quiet in the wings!,” said Celena Fornell, 13, who’s in the Candy Cane variation for the second time. The striped Candy Cane suits have jingle bells sewn to the arms and legs — “so every time we move backstage, we make a sound, and all the stagehands are like, ‘Be quiet!’ We knew the bells would be there, but we didn’t know they’d be that loud.”
What’s your favorite part of the show?
“I like Act 2 because it’s really colorful, and all the costumes are really cool,” Hank said. Mimi loves the end of both acts: the Chihuly star at the end of Act I, and the flying sleigh that closes the show. Celena’s partial to the Candy Canes, particularly the soloist — “he’s jumping so much!”
Jade’s favorite part is the snow scene, though it’s not without peril. “You can’t swallow snowflakes — they’re coated in a fire-retardant chemical. It’s like having soap in your mouth. They tell us we just can’t open our mouths to breathe. Which is hard …”
Nonetheless, she beams at the memory of dancing the Waltz of the Snowflakes. “The music is so beautiful, and there’s all these people moving at the exact same moment and breathing together and doing all the same steps, and it’s so musical and so beautiful. It just makes you want to smile — you’re like, ‘I’m really doing this! I’m dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet and I’m doing the ‘Nutcracker’! It’s a wonderful experience.”
WATCH: See how the mice come together and the reindeer fly.