Effects combine to help audience experience a convincing winter wonderland indoors.
Audiences love those six magical minutes in every production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” when it snows onstage. But how does the snow happen? Pacific Northwest Ballet relies on four theatrical elements to create that enchanting scene (officially titled “A forest in winter” but affectionately referred to as “Snow Scene”). They are: dancers, costumes, snow and music.
Rehearsals begin each September for “Snow Scene.” Dancers rehearse on and off for months to perfect their part leading up to opening night of “The Nutcracker.” There are 16 dancers in every “Snow Scene” performance, but as many as 60 dancers learn the parts because not every dancer will dance as a Snowflake for every performance.
The dancers are from PNB’s professional company and also from the professional division of PNB School (student dancers on their way to a professional career). The dancers in “Snow Scene” are nearly always dancing other roles in that same performance, sometimes up to three roles per show. If you look closely, you may see them in “Party Scene,” “Spanish,” “Marzipan” and “Flowers.”
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PNB’s production of “The Nutcracker” premiered in 2015 and the new scenery and costumes were created by celebrated author and illustrator Ian Falconer of “Olivia the Pig” fame. Snowflake costumes are completely handmade and include three parts: a tutu, a tiara and a snowflake wand for each hand.
The shimmery blue tutus have nine layers of different tulles and fabrics and 56 points to create the illusion of snow as the Snowflake dances across the stage. The tiaras contain 500 individual jewels per tiara and stand nearly six inches off the top of each Snowflake’s head. Snowflake wands are carried in each of the dancers’ hands and choreographed to be used in unison to create the appearance of even more snow.
The “snow” is paper that’s been treated so it doesn’t catch on fire under the bright stage lights. Every snowflake is unique, just like real snowflakes, but the dancing Snowflakes will tell you that this snow tastes terrible.
Thirty cubic feet of snow falls onto the stage during each “Snow Scene,” and two industrial tower fans in the wings on either side of the stage blow the snow as it falls from bags of snow suspended in the fly tower. Stagehands create the falling snow by gently turning bags of snow in time with the music and choreography. While the audience enjoys intermission, the backstage crew sweeps up the snow and sets the stage for the top of Act II.
Composer P.I. Tchaikovsky and original choreographer Marius Petipa were hired in 1891 to create the original “Nutcracker” music and choreography. Can you believe that the production was not an instant hit? Today, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” is ubiquitous with the holiday season. At PNB, the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra is in the pit playing live for every performance of “The Nutcracker.” Approximately 60 musicians are required for each performance, and in “The Waltz of the Snowflakes,” two soloist singers join the orchestra. The music is evocative of falling snow. Flutes trill as the piece opens, like the first flurries, then slowly the music builds, other instruments and the vocalists come in, and a blizzard of sound complements the visual effects created on stage.
See “The Nutcracker,” with Tchaikovsky’s cherished score played live by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, the brilliant dancing of PNB dancers, Ian Falconer’s new scenery and costumes, and Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall all dressed up for the holidays.