Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” with lavish sets and costumes by Maurice Sendak and choreography by Kent Stowell, has been a tradition for Seattle-area families since 1983. Thousands of little girls in party dresses and their brothers in holiday sweaters have gazed up in awe at the fanciful, colorful world on PNB’s stage: the enormous grandfather clock, the massive Mouse King’s tail, the mournful peacock, the dancing ocean waves as a heroine is whisked by boat to a magical kingdom.
But audiences will bid this production bon voyage next season: The 2014 holiday staging of the Sendak/Stowell “Nutcracker” will be its last, PNB announced Wednesday. It will be replaced in 2015 with a new version using George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography and new costumes and sets by Ian Falconer (best known for the “Olivia” series of children’s books).
“We all have a great deal of love and attachment to the (‘Nutcracker’) we have,” PNB artistic director Peter Boal said earlier this week, calling the impact of the Sendak/Stowell version “tremendous.”
The decision to end its run, he said, came from “looking at ticket sales over the last decade, and looking at the age of the current production, and realizing it was probably time to make a change.”
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Sales for “Nutcracker,” he said, have been lagging since the recession. Since hitting an all-time high of $6.2 million in 2007, ticket revenue has fluctuated, dropping as low as $4.7 million in 2011 and rebounding to $5.4 million in 2013. The company’s research also showed, Boal said, that typically 67 percent of “Nutcracker” audiences didn’t attend the previous year.
Boal, a New York City Ballet (NYCB) veteran who trained at the company’s School of American Ballet, performed in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” (now its official title) for 30 years — and, as a child, worked directly with Balanchine to learn the role of the young Prince. It’s been a dream of his to bring it to PNB, which has a long connection with Balanchine — “such a reassuring and comforting name,” he said, to PNB audiences.
Widely considered the 20th century’s greatest ballet choreographer, the Russian-born Balanchine co-founded NYCB in 1948 and created dozens of dances for the company before his death in 1983. “The Nutcracker” was his first full-length ballet for the troupe, premiering in 1954, and was credited with helping make the ballet (then little-performed) an annual Christmas tradition around the country. A film version of it, starring a young Macaulay Culkin, was released in theaters in 1993.
Originally presented in 1890s Russia, with a masterful score by Tchaikovsky, “The Nutcracker” is the story of a little girl who receives a nutcracker doll as a gift on Christmas Eve and then dreams of a journey to a magical land with her Nutcracker Prince. Balanchine’s narrative differs from Stowell’s primarily in that Clara and her prince are played by children throughout. In PNB’s production, Clara is played in Act 2 by an adult dancer; Balanchine’s grand pas de deux is danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy (a character not present in Stowell’s version) and her cavalier.
Like the familiar PNB production, NYCB’s uses a large number of children from the company school. Balanchine, noted Boal, “does quite formal choreography for children — they’re really asked to dance adult ballet steps.”
To succeed Sendak’s colorful designs, which have happily haunted local children’s dreams for three decades, Boal turned to another beloved author.
“As much as we target every member of the audience, it’s the children that are first and foremost,” Boal said, “Bringing an artist in that’s already part of the bedtime stories and the first books trotted off to school, I think, is really central to making a ‘Nutcracker’ succeed.” Falconer is no stranger to ballet, having designed several works for NYCB (including an ingenious design for Christopher Wheeldon’s “Variations Sérieuses,” seen at PNB in 2011); he’s also created sets and costumes for several opera productions.
In early discussions, Boal said, he and Falconer have decided to move the setting to this country (normally “Nutcracker” takes place in Germany). Falconer has “done first run” at all the sets and a handful of costumes; more design work will be completed this spring.
Audiences can say goodbye to the Sendak/Stowell “Nutcracker” in the 2014 holiday season (see box for ticket information). Boal said it’s “not out of the question” that it might be presented again someday, but for now the production’s vast sets and 200-plus costumes are to be put in storage after its final bow.
Though Boal is excited about bringing Balanchine and Falconer’s “Nutcracker” vision to Seattle, he’s anxious about replacing a much-loved production. “I approached this with apprehension, with caution, with research,” he said. “When you take something that has a 31-year tradition that’s been hugely successful, you have to be very careful. You should be nervous — if you’re not, you’re reckless.”
But with the unanimous backing of the PNB board and vigorous new fundraising (boosted, Boal said, by a million-dollar gift from the Dan and Pam Baty family, who “believe in great Seattle traditions”), the new “Nutcracker” will be a reality in 2015. “This is something that I believe strongly in, and we’re going to make a go of it,” said Boal. “When the curtain goes up on opening night, it’s going to be spectacular.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org