Meet the local designers and artisans who devised giant mice, flying reindeer and even digital snow for PNB's bold new production of “The Nutcracker.” Watch how the reindeer and mice come alive behind the scenes.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of “The Nutcracker,” designed by children’s book author/illustrator Ian Falconer (“Olivia”), required a village of local artisans, craftspeople, carpenters, painters and animators. Here are five of them, each of whom can look up at the stage on opening night, Nov. 27, and have the satisfaction of thinking, “I made that.” (The ballet runs through Dec. 28, tickets from $25; 206-441-2424 or pnb.org).
“It’s like a big stuffed animal,” said Erik Andor, “but rigid enough for a dancer to move around in it.”
Andor, a Seattle native and costume designer whose varied résumé includes 20 years designing for local surrealistic drag queen Dina Martina, has a high-profile job in the new “Nutcracker”: He’s in charge of creating the production’s 17 mouse costumes — eight large, eight child-sized and a Mouse King — from Falconer’s fanciful drawings.
In Andor’s Pioneer Square studio earlier this month, three large pieces per mouse were under way: a pear-shaped body, a head and neck (the mouse head sits atop the dancer’s head, hatlike, with visibility through the furry throat) and a 4-foot-long, easily lashable tail. The costumes are constructed from high-density foam, layered with mesh and covered in acrylic gray fur. Whiskers (230 of them) are made from “commercial-grade weed whacker line,” said Andor; eyes, made of acrylic, were sanded to create a milky quality. So that the mice aren’t mirror images of each other, subtle details are tweaked on each head — a slightly different shape to the eye, a tilt of the ears.
Andor, a self-described specialist in “wacky” stagewear, said the process of creating the mice took about a year, with several prototypes being constructed before settling on the final form. In the studio, they await their debut, whiskers aquiver. — M.M.
Falconer’s designs for “Nutcracker,” unlike those of the Maurice Sendak version that came before, feature bright colors and graphic prints — most notably, in its opening moments, Clara’s vivid red-and-white striped party dress. But that fabric didn’t come off a bolt: Wendy Oberlin, a PNB costume shop staffer who specializes in fabric painting and dying, created those stripes (which also line Drosselmaier’s cape), via taping and airbrushing.
“It took a week and a half to do the stripes,” said Oberlin, who had to borrow space at Seattle Opera’s costume shop to do the job, as PNB’s spray booth wasn’t big enough. “I had eight yards of fabric up on the wall. It was a lot of coats, about 10.” The fabric is a polyester blend (chosen over silk for its durability), which necessitated the multiple coats — synthetic fabrics, said Oberlin, don’t always take dye well.
Oberlin, who’s been at PNB since 1989, did a multitude of tasks for the “Nutcracker” costumes: stripes for Clara, Drosselmaier and the Hot Chocolate flamenco-style dresses, painting the Act I Nutcracker head, creating a breakaway Nutcracker costume for the young prince, and crafting tiny papier-mâché Nutcracker heads to decorate the soldier’s hats. Each careful detail contributes to a colorful whole. — M.M.
“I do top and bottom — tiaras and boots,” said PNB milliner/craftsperson Terry Frank, of his specialties. For “Nutcracker,” he worked on pieces both tiny and vast. On the intricate side: Frank and his team created delicate, sparkling tiaras for Snow and Flowers (31 dancers in all). They crafted dozens of hats, twisted 500 yards of tubular horsehair to create wiglike headpieces for the party scene, and Frank personally spent “a couple of weeks” with X-Acto knife in hand, cutting out shapes for the doilylike Marzipan tutus.
All of those items together, though, would likely fit easily inside his biggest project: the engineering of Mother Ginger’s skirt. The character (played by a tall male dancer, on stilts) arrives onstage in Act 2 in a vast skirt that shelters eight children, and Frank’s job was to figure out how to make that skirt sturdy yet not too heavy to wear.
The end result: an aluminum frame, welded by PNB electrician Jon Hackett, with a harness and shoulder straps. Ten feet across, it weighs 61 pounds, and measures 5-foot-2 at the waistline. Frank and his crew fabricated a costume to cover all that acreage (it involved 175 snaps) and topped it with an enormous hat — lined, though no audience member will ever see it, in a bright hibiscus print. “Mama G, she was a chore,” he said. — M.M.
This is the first time 3D animation studio Straightface has done any work for the PNB. And more than likely, its last.
“The last one played for 30 years; I don’t expect them to be updating it every year,” said creative director Don Lange of the Stowell-Sendak “Nutcracker.”
The new digital element of the show begins with the overture. The orchestra will accompany Straightface’s video, which covers most of the stage and takes the audience through a snowflake-filled forest and into a 19th-century village, culminating with the digital becoming reality as the doors to a house open and the real set is revealed.
The house used as inspiration was chosen by Falconer himself, and the team at Straightface had to research Greek-revival architecture, discovering Pinterest along the way, to ensure it was as realistic as possible.
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- PNB prepares to raise the curtain on a bold new ‘Nutcracker’
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Straightface mostly does work for advertising clients, or other web and TV projects where their work is seen for six months to a year at the most. So having a “legacy piece” like this that will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people over the years is an exciting change of pace.
Like any artistic endeavor, there comes a point where the refinements must stop and the work gets sent to print, or in this case, a stack of machines that will render the video over the course of several weeks.
“There’s always something,” Lange said. “But I’m not going to tell you what any of those things are.” — J.S.T.
What’s the magic that makes reindeer fly? In the case of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” this year, it’s a windshield-wiper motor.
The 12-volt motor with easily replaceable parts was the perfect engine to power the galloping reindeer that lead a sleigh high above this year’s set. “Free-range electromechanical work,” production electrician Jon Hackett calls it.
Starting with a simple 8-by-11 sketch, Hackett and his team sat down, scaled everything to size, and began a process of continuous experimenting and testing, even being kicked by his own creation along the way.
His experience as a massage therapist helped him engineer and design the reindeer to be anatomically realistic, using a reindeer skeleton as inspiration.
Having been at PNB since 1980, starting work on a new set (the second “Nutcracker” set he helped build) provides an exciting new challenge for Hackett and his team, as well as some new stress on opening night.
“There’s going to be a bit of nail-biting at the outset,” he said.
But like every other “Nutcracker” design, this one is built to last.
“You have to realize that human beings are going to work with this,” he said.
“I ensure that this can take a beating.” — J.S.T.