It’s always a thrill to attend the opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s annual month of The Nutcracker performances, which happened at McCaw Hall Friday November 29th. Throngs of audience-goers with little girls in frills and mini tutus, magicians and booths with Nutcracker backdrops for family photos add to the festive, anticipatory spirit, even before the doors open to the auditorium itself.

Leta Biasucci (Sugar Plum Fairy) © Angela Sterling
Leta Biasucci (Sugar Plum Fairy)
© Angela Sterling

As always, the production has been worked on for several months. Many of the company have danced in Nutcracker before but there are so many different roles for them to learn, they could encounter several new ones each year. The major effort in the preceding months, however, is that of teaching the students from the PNB school who take part, 140 this year, a large number of those being young children in rotating casts.

Some of the pleasure comes from seeing the sets and imaginative, colorful costumes designed by children’s book author Ian Falconer. The scene is set with a short video of flying through a snowy northeastern US to a mansion where the doors are pushed open by mice.

Despite many small, lively activities around the Christmas tree, the opening party scene is largely acting and can seem overlong. There is only a short segment of dance, when Herr Drosselmeyer (William Lin-Yee) opens his gift boxes and out come the clockwork performing dolls.

It’s the next scene, when Clara sleeps on a settee with her new Nutcracker and her dreams take wing, that it’s time to sit up and take note of Falconer’s magnificent mice with their huge heads and bulbous bodies scurrying across the floor as the tree grows enormous, and toy soldiers emerge in formation to fight. The exciting battle scene with the small soldiers and the menacing mice culminates as the Nutcracker (Owen Odegard), now grown and no longer a doll, fights and slays the seven-headed mouse king (Dylan Wald). It’s impossible to think of it without hearing the music in your ear.

Seth Orza (Herr Drosselmeyer) © Angela Sterling
Seth Orza (Herr Drosselmeyer)
© Angela Sterling

But now the walls fall away and snowflakes dance in the forest as snow falls lightly. PNB’s dancers are light on their feet, their blue-white tiered tutus with petals on top floating gently around them as they perform with precision in Balanchine’s formations, effortlessly creating snowy patterns. The Nutcracker, dropping his disguise and now a young prince in rose-colored knee britches, walks hand in hand with Clara through the forest below a huge gold star, heading towards The Land of Sweets.

Here is where we see company dancers in the many short vignettes representing good things to eat and drink, but first, tiny haloed angels in stiff triangular golden skirts, each holding a light, glide across and around in smooth movement, meticulously taught and learned. They are joined by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Leta Biasucci) who visits and dances with them. Hot Chocolate has dancers in Spanish garb, while in Tea they are Chinese, Marzipan Shepherdesses wear tiny pastel tutus while Mother Ginger comes out ten feet tall with a skirt ten feet wide. The eight little Polichinelles who emerge from that skirt managed as always not to bump into the stilts on which Mother Ginger (Dammiel Cruz) is walking. All was accomplished with aplomb.

Of the dancers, Price Suddarth’s clockwork Soldier and Ryan Cardea’s neat footwork as Tea stood out, as did lead Candy Cane Kyle Davis, but where, often, that role culminates with spectacular double or triple twirls as he leaps through his hoop, Davis, usually a most agile performer, contented himself with one. Noelani Pantastico, first among principals in the company, in this performance danced a sinuous, sensuous peacock as Coffee, beautifully done but not a role to showcase the depth of her talent.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers and PNB School students © Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers and PNB School students
© Angela Sterling

Elizabeth Murphy shone as a delicate Dewdrop in a brief, green costume among the Flowers who wore one of Falconer’s design triumphs, romantic style tutus with sunflower-colored tops shading through layers of petals to deep apricot. These, like the Snowflakes, danced with lightness and precision. Biasucci with her Cavalier (Benjamin Griffiths) took the stage for their traditional pas de deux. She is an impeccable dancer and he an innately sensitive partner, but at the same time, her dancing always seems to be thought rather than felt, and as such she does not project that mesmerizing spark to this member of the audience. Griffiths’ short solo showed off his musicianship as well as his technique, a fine principal who has never stopped improving since he joined the company 14 years ago.

The PNB Orchestra with Michael Jinsoo Lim as violin soloist and directed by principal conductor Emil de Cou, is one of the company treasures. Although they have played Nutcracker countless times, the result always sounds fresh, attuned to each dancer and with rich tone and nuance.

*****