Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new “Nutcracker,” designed by illustrator Ian Falconer with choreography by George Balanchine, is brighter and lighter, with a dazzling glass star by Dale Chihuly.
Olivia came to McCaw Hall on Friday night to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s sparkling-new production of “The Nutcracker.”
The famous pig of children’s fiction, whose creator Ian Falconer designed the sets and costumes for this production, peers out from a whimsical mural stage right, in an ornately painted opera-house box.
An elegant lady with a lorgnette gazes at Olivia with an expression that just might be horror, but the very self-confident pig — decked out in her best red-and-white stripes — looks like she’s having a wonderful time.
So did the audience, which stood and cheered on opening night of this long-awaited production pairing Falconer’s designs with George Balanchine’s classic choreography (created for New York City Ballet in 1954 and still performed there every holiday season).
It’s the first new “Nutcracker” at PNB in more than three decades, replacing a decades-old and much-beloved production designed by Maurice Sendak and choreographed by Kent Stowell.
Though quite different, both productions meticulously depict the very particular vision of an author and illustrator beloved by children. Sendak’s inventive “Nutcracker” had the dusty pastels and the charming yet faintly dark mystery of his books; Falconer’s is lighter in mood, brighter in color, more graphic, more architectural, more whimsical.
Which version you like better will surely depend on taste. But these designs meld well with Balanchine’s story: His Drosselmeier is more kindly than frightening, and the second act (in which young Clara travels in sleep to a magical land), with angels and fairies and delicious sweets, is the very picture of a little girl’s romantic dream.
This Clara (played on opening night by PNB student Isabelle Rookstool) wears bright red-and-white stripes in a nod to her cousin Olivia; these Flowers bloom in vivid corals and pinks with a Dewdrop (Laura Tisserand) in sea-foam green; these mice look charmingly overstuffed.
Details on the sets include a drawing-room window from which we see snow softly falling, a dazzling Chihuly star hanging over the snow scene and a Christmas tree that expands past the ceiling — a child watching might think that it’s growing still.
A magical mood is established straightaway with a video (from local firm Straightface Studios) playing over Tchaikovsky’s delicate overture: We’re whisked, possibly by flying reindeer, over a snowy New England forest and into a mid-19th-century town, up to a warmly lit home.
Balanchine’s choreography moves the party scene along swiftly, letting us watch little dramas unfolding throughout — particularly Clara’s innocent infatuation with her godfather Drosselmeier’s nephew (Ethan Arrington).
The mice and soldiers battle, the snowflakes whirl and a procession of specialty dances take place before one last magical touch, hinted at in the video, sends the audience home with a happy “ahhh.”
It’s a monumental effort to stage a new production like this, and opening night, perhaps inevitably, wasn’t perfect. Elizabeth Murphy (newly promoted to principal) made a precise and lovely Sugar Plum Fairy, but she and her Cavalier (Jerome Tisserand, very strong in his brief solo) struggled on perhaps Balanchine’s most beautiful moment in the ballet: the final pas de deux, when he pulls her, in dreamy arabesque, across the floor as if she’s gliding on ice (with the help of a sliding track on the floor). A few odd notes drifted up from the orchestra pit and a few cues — most notably, before the final bows — needed to be tighter.
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All that, surely, will soon be remedied; other moments outshone any mistakes. Leta Biasucci, as lead Marzipan Shepherdesses, navigated some fiendishly difficult hops on pointe with charismatic grace. Benjamin Griffiths, the lead Candy Cane, flew through a hoop as if gravity was an idea that hadn’t occurred to him.
Twelve young PNB students, as angels caught in lighting designer James F. Ingalls’ warm candlelight, created a magical spell, barely seeming to touch the floor. Joshua Grant — who, as a veteran of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, knows a thing or two about comic timing — was hammy perfection as Mother Ginger (who ingeniously conceals eight dancing children in her vast skirts).
And violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim’s delicate solo rendering of a Tchaikovsky piece added by Balanchine to this production (it’s from “Sleeping Beauty,” but uses a theme later developed in “Nutcracker”) made what could have been an awkward pause in the first-act action into a moment of quiet beauty. It’ll be great fun to watch as this “Nutcracker” settles in for a long run; it is, like a stocking hung by the hearth, filled with treasures.
PNB’s new “Nutcracker” repeats 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, select Wednesdays and Mondays, through Dec. 28, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $22-$156 (206-441-2424 or pnb.org).