AS THE BIG night arrived — the one they’d all been endlessly practicing for, dreaming of — dozens of dancers and crew members buzzed around backstage as musicians warmed up in the orchestra pit of the Seattle Opera House.
After hours of rehearsals, costume fitting, hair spray and heavy loads of makeup, 13-year-old Maurya Kerr steadied her nerves. The curtain was about to go up on the opening performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s grand new production of “Nutcracker.” And Maurya Kerr had been cast in the coveted role of Clara. The thrill of it all overrode the pain in her big toe — which had ballooned from a minor injury the night before — as she lay down, eyes closed, for her opening scene.
The performance — with its fantastical creatures, dreamy dances and grown-before-your-eyes giant Christmas tree — was a hit. Seattle Times dance critic Carole Beers reported a “roaring ovation” that lasted more than seven minutes after the final curtain.
They couldn’t have known it then, but that night, Dec. 13, 1983, would turn out to be the beginning of a long and beloved era — a cherished holiday tradition for legions of kids and grown-up kids alike.
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Choreographed by Kent Stowell and designed by celebrated children’s author Maurice Sendak (best known for “Where the Wild Things Are”), this production has served as a hallmark of Seattle ballet as well as the starting point of many young dancers’ careers.
But the Stowell/Sendak “Nutcracker” will soon take its final bow at the end of this season and be put into storage, making way for the start of a new tradition. Come next season, “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” originally staged in 1954, will take its place. PNB will combine Balanchine’s choreography, now performed by the New York City Ballet and several other companies around the country, with new sets and costumes designed by Ian Falconer, author of the “Olivia” children’s books.
The decision to switch productions, PNB artistic director Peter Boal says, is part of the company’s effort to bring the city a new take on the holiday classic. Knowing how much the production means to the community, though, he was careful to discuss it with many others beforethe ballet’s governing board made the decision.
“More people have come into this company because of that production than anything else we’ve done,” Boal says. “Admirably doesn’t even start to describe how it’s done over the years.” But after three decades, “we had to evaluate: What can ‘Nutcracker’ be for this institution? What should it be? What has it been?”
For the flocks of children and families who have experienced its magic over the years, the end of this era is obviously sad news. The dancers in children’s roles, in particular, say they feel like they’re losing part of their childhood.
Dorothea Axelson, who also played Clara during that premier year and went on to numerous other roles until she left PNB at age 17, described it as akin to “seeing an old friend go.”
“Balanchine is wonderful. He was (my) childhood hero. He’s absolutely a choreographic genius,” she says. “But it’s not the same when you don’t have your homegrown production.”
“HOMEGROWN” WAS, after all, what founding artistic directors Stowell and his wife, Francia Russell, intended when they set out to create a new “Nutcracker” in the 1980s.
“Almost every major company has their own ‘Nutcracker,’ ” Stowell explains. “That was the important part, to establish our own identity through ‘Nutcracker,’ because, first of all, it’s such a huge, big audience, and then it’s a really big part of the earned income for a ballet company.”
Furthermore, they wanted to create an experience that really resonated with children. At the time, Sendak’s books were household favorites for Stowell and Russell’s own children. After discovering that Sendak had recently designed the sets for an opera, Russell realized he was the obvious choice to design for their ballet.
“Maurice speaks to children in a very particular language,” Russell says. “He never condescends to them . . . He’s in tune with their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their nightmares.”
Sendak’s initial skepticism at creating “just another ‘Nutcracker,’ ” Stowell says, gave way to intrigue as they discussed early on the objective to create something innovative, a “Nutcracker” that would stand out from the rest.
And that they did. Sendak’s lush and sometimes frightening costumes and scenery have become integral parts of PNB’s production — a singular departure from the bright, frothy feel of many others. They’re also a huge part of the reason people are so attached to this production.
“I feel like all the other ones don’t give credence to that darkness” experienced in adolescence, Kerr says. “Most ‘Nutcrackers’ are very saccharine and sweet, and not as rich.”
Needless to say, Stowell and Russell are disappointed about the change.For them and many others who’ve been on the stage, behind the scenes or in the audience over the years, it’s the end of a “Nutcracker” that was built specifically for Seattle.
“This one is such a tradition and huge part of the fabric of the community, and the artistic beginnings of young families to enter the theater,” Stowell says. “It’s a shame that they won’t have that as part of their traditions” anymore.
Some of PNB’s veterans — resident lighting designer Randall Chiarelli, master carpenter Murray Johnson and costume shop manager Larae Theige Hascall among them — have seen the tradition unfold from the very start.
For Chiarelli and Johnson, none of the past 31 years of “Nutcracker” quite compares to the hectic months leading up to the premier performance. Because of the scale of this production — larger than any the company had ever produced — it took some time to persuade the PNB board to approve the project. Consequently, assembly of the intricate, elaborate sets began late and ended up getting built in seven cities in just under three months.
Chiarelli looks back on that time — scrambling to make sure all the set pieces were finished, then dealing with a calamity of malfunctions during the early shows — as one of the craziest in his life.
“At opening night, I was done,” he says, laughing.
But the children bouncing around backstage and watching wide-eyed in the audience have kept him coming back ever since. Their enthusiasm, he says, is quite infectious.
“Between the kids in the show and the kids in the audience, it makes it all worthwhile. … When they get over here, they can pretend like they’re grown-ups, and it’s kind of charming.”
IT’S LATE SEPTEMBER when a flurry of little girls as young as 7 begins to arrive at PNB in pink leotards and ballet slippers, hair tightly bound, eyes wide. Anticipation fills the air with their chatter and giggly handclapping games as they await the audition call.
When the time comes, their chatter stops. Quietly, they file — game faces on, chests pumped out, hands on hips — into a mirrored dance studio. After several rounds of skipping and marching to piano ditties, they file back out of the room to make way for the next group of dancers, arranged by age. And so it goes for the next few hours, the ballet moves progressing in difficulty for each group.
Nearly a week later, the results are revealed: Of the 295 kids who auditioned this year, 222 are cast in the 83 roles allotted to children — the largest number of any ballet PNB offers.
One of the three girls cast as Clara is 12-year-old Genevieve Knight, who’s all smiles after seeing her name on the casting list. She’s wanted to be Clara — what several dancers describe as “every little girl’s dream” — since she was 5 years old.
“I feel like I took off a really heavy backpack,” she says of her happiness and relief. “It’s an honor they’ve entrusted me with this part.”
For her and the rest of the kids cast this year, “Nutcracker” will consume their holiday seasons. The young dancers began rehearsals on Oct. 4, and each one will perform in at least a dozen shows this season.
Though long hours of ballet on top of school becomes difficult to handle at times, they do not waver. In fact, many return to dance in “Nutcracker” each year, learning the rewards of discipline, time management and hard work.
Otto Neubert, one of PNB’s ballet masters, gets to see this process each year. He calls this one of his happiest times, despite the chaos of the season.
“You are sometimes tired, and then you have to deal with kids” during the inevitably long evening rehearsals. “You would think it would be the hardest thing, but it’s the easiest thing of the day. As soon as they come in, they just lift you up.”
Though dancing in this ballet means very little free time for anything else, most of the kids involved don’t think it’s such a big sacrifice, especially if they know they want to pursue ballet professionally.
Many children who started in the PNB School and performed in “Nutcracker” have gone on to professional ballet careers. Some have even stuck around long enough to make it to PNB’s Corps de Ballet; Jessika Anspach, 30, and Eric Hipolito Jr., 24, each grew up performing in “Nutcracker” as children and, as corps dancers, have graduated into the adult roles.
Despite the rigor of 35 to 40-plus performances each year, both Anspach and Hipolito said they still enjoy the “Nutcracker” season — more so than some of their peers.
“I think it’s because we were kids when we first got to do it,” says Hipolito, who is the first person from PNB’s DanceChance community-recruitment program to advance into PNB’s corps. “So, to me, it does kind of remind me of holiday magic, because it reminds me of when I was a little kid.”
Besides the hard work that comes with the job, dancing in “Nutcracker” brings together friendships, holiday spirit, backstage festivities and the all-too-familiar smell of Freeze It hair spray.
As Claira Smith, age 16 and a PNB School dancer for 13 years, put it: “My ballet friends are the closest friends I will probably ever have.”
And it’s no surprise, considering the level of passion these young dancers share.
“All my friends were at ballet,” says Kerr, who has remained good friends with Axelson more than 30 years after they met. “I mean, when you’re that serious and intense, most of your peers become your friends.”
OVER THE YEARS, this production has become the source and destination of many a family gathering during the holidays. Beyond the families in the audience, there are the parents who devote countless hours each year to driving their kids to rehearsals and performances, moms who curl their children’s hair backstage and parents who comfort little ones when their names don’t appear on the casting list.
There are also, in special cases, the families that perform in the production together.
For the Cooney family, PNB’s Stowell/Sendak “Nutcracker” has very much become an integral part of the family’s holiday season. Kevin Cooney and his wife have eight children, seven of whom have performed in PNB’s “Nutcracker.” Cooney himself appears in a few shows each year as the party scene’s “drunk uncle” and has on a few occasions performed with his children. This final production will be his 20th year.
Recently, one of his daughters has started teaching at the PNB School, and one of his grandchildren has started dancing there.
“It’s something we’ve been delighted to be involved in,” Cooney said. After reflecting on his family’s experience in what has become a beloved family tradition, his voice gave a slight quaver.
“I would get emotional because I’m so grateful that my family had that chance,” he said. “I think Kent and Francia really gave a great gift to this city and to generations of people.”
Over the years, Cooney said, he and his family have really gotten to know many of the people who work to make this production possible. Each season, camaraderie blossoms backstage among the cast and crew, creating a family-like atmosphere at a time of year when it’s difficult for those working in the production to visit family elsewhere.
“Year after year after year, it brought all of us together as a family,” Russell said. “It was a real family backstage, in the orchestra pit, and it drew the audience in . . . it was a very strong, powerful feeling.”
Though the sets, costumes and choreography might differ next year, the community and memories formed by Stowell and Sendak’s “Nutcracker” will live on for years.
The kids, of course, will still be at the center of the new production.
Neubert, for one, hopes the new “Nutcracker” will do what the old one did so well: “In the time we have,” he said, “we can’t make a dancer out of every kid, but we can do our best for them to have a good time.”
Shirley Qiu is a former Seattle Times staff reporter. Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.