In Seattle, Maurice Sendak's 'Wild' 'Nutcracker' Reaches Its Final Act | KUOW News and Information

In Seattle, Maurice Sendak's 'Wild' 'Nutcracker' Reaches Its Final Act

Dec 23, 2014
Originally published on December 23, 2014 4:32 pm

In Seattle, the Pacific Northwest Ballet performs The Nutcracker to that same ubiquitous Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky score. The ballet tells the story of Clara, a young girl whose grandfather gives her a nutcracker at a party. One night, Clara goes searching for her nutcracker and walks right into a battle between a regiment of toy soldiers and a wily team of oversized rodents.

But then Seattle's version departs from the traditional storyline: In Act II, there's no Sugar Plum Fairy or Land of the Sweets; instead, there's a lavish Turkish palace with servants in headscarves and a leggy peacock with a swishy tail. And if you're familiar with Maurice Sendak's children's book Where the Wild Things Are, you'll instantly recognize the toothy tiger with the big yellow eyes that totters and leaps.

For more than three decades, Seattle's Nutcracker has used sets and costumes designed by Sendak, who died in 2012. But now the Pacific Northwest Ballet is retiring its one-of-a-kind production.

Kent Stowell and his wife, Francia Russell, were the ballet's artistic directors back in the 1980s, when they envisioned a different kind of Nutcracker production and approached Sendak to help them realize it. "I flew to New York," Stowell says, "and we sat down and started talking about it. And I said, 'Well, I want to do a Nutcracker.' And [Sendak] says, 'Well, I don't even like ballet.' "

Sendak had designed three operas and one off-Broadway children's musical, but Stowell says he regarded the typical Nutcracker as, well, too cute.

"[Sendak] likes real things, you know, like monsters and children that cry and make demands," Stowell says. So in the Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker, there's a huge rat puppet with a thick twitching tail that looks like it wraps all the way to the other side of the stage. There are also cannons and a Christmas tree that doubles in size to 48 feet right before your eyes.

It's all enough to spook the tiniest of tots, which was kind of the point. Stowell says Sendak wanted to challenge kids: "Maurice and I thought what makes children happy is to be a little bit afraid, scared; [to] overcome things. And so that's what Nutcracker ended up being: a story about a little girl and her trials and tribulations of growing up, facing life and romance. And is it a dream or isn't it a dream? That's how the ballet ends."

Over the years, Seattle's Nutcracker has changed at least one child's life. It was the first ballet Seattle native Jessika Anspach ever saw, and she says watching a scene at the end of Act I — in which snow falls on top of twirling ballerina snowflakes — made her want to dance. Now she's in her 11th year with the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

She says, "Part of me had always hoped that one day I'd be able to take my kids to see our Nutcracker and say, 'Your mom did that!' "

Now, that won't happen. The company's current artistic director, Peter Boal, says this is the right time to retire the production. All three of Boal's kids have danced in Sendak's Nutcracker, so he's quite attached to it, but he's also sentimental about the version choreographed by George Balanchine, which Boal danced in when he was with the New York City Ballet. So he's bringing Balanchine's Nutcracker to Seattle. It'll be a new production with sets and costumes designed by contemporary children's author Ian Falconer, best known for his books about a very cultured pig named Olivia.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At this time of year, depending on where you live, you can always count on certain holiday traditions. New York City has the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. In Santa Fe people line their driveways and sidewalks with luminarias. And for more than 30 years, Seattle has had its own "Nutcracker" ballet with sets and costumes designed by the late children's author Maurice Sendak. But after 32 years, Pacific Northwest Ballet is retiring its one-of-a-kind production. From member station KPLU, Florangela Davila reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TCHAIKOVSKY - THE NUTRACKER - DANCE OF THE SUGAR PLUM FAIRY")

FLORANGELA DAVILA, BYLINE: In Seattle, "The Nutcracker" has danced to that same ubiquitous Tchaikovsky score. And just in case you don't know the storyline...

SADIE BEERS: So there's a girl named Clara. She, like, goes to a party and then her grandfather, Drosselmeier, gives her a nutcracker.

DAVILA: That's 10-year-old dancer Sadie Beers, who likes the color pink, computer programming and point shoes. She explains how in the ballet, in the middle of the night, Clara goes searching for her nutcracker.

SADIE: She starts looking around and then trips over a baby mouse.

DAVILA: And that's pretty much when the fight scene begins, which is when Sadie and the rest of the toy soldiers - each dressed in long, red coats and furry, black hats - battle a wily team of over-sized rodents.

SADIE: Go, go team nutcracker.

DAVILA: But this "Nutcracker" then departs from the more traditional storyline. In Act II, there's no Sugar Plum Fairy or the Land of the Sweets. Instead, there's a lavish Turkish palace with servants in headscarves and a leggy peacock with a swishy tail. And if you're familiar with more Maurice Sendak's "Wild Things," you'll instantly recognize the toothy tiger with the big yellow eyes that totters and leaps. Kent Stowell co-founded the ballet company with his wife, Francia Russell. They were the artistic directors back in the 1980s when they envisioned a different kind of "Nutcracker" production and approached Sendak.

KENT STOWELL: Well, I flew to New York and we sat down and started talking about it and I said, well, I want to do a "Nutcracker" and he says, well, I don't even like ballet.

DAVILA: Sendak had designed three operas and one off-Broadway children's musical, but Stowell says he regarded the typical "Nutcracker" as too blah and, well, too cute.

STOWELL: He likes real things, you know, like, monsters and children that cry and make demands.

DAVILA: In Seattle's "Nutcracker," there's a huge rat puppet with a thick, twitching tail that looks like it wraps all the way to the other side of the stage. There are canons that get blasted. And the Christmas tree that doubles in size to 48 feet right before your eyes, can spook the tiniest of tots. Stowell says Sendak wanted to challenge kids.

STOWELL: Maurice and I thought what makes children happy is to be a little bit of afraid, scared, overcome things. And so that's what "Nutcracker" ended up being- a story about a little girl and her trials and tribulations of growing up, facing life and romance. And is it a dream or isn't it a dream? That's how the ballet ends.

JESSIKA ANSPACH: It just takes me back to those days when I was little, sitting with my eyes wide.

DAVILA: Jessika Anspach grew up east of Seattle. Sendak's "Nutcracker" was the first ballet she ever saw. It was that scene at the end of Act I, so much snow falling on top of twirling ballerina snowflakes in the forest, that made her want to dance. She's in her 11th year with the ballet company.

ANSPACH: Part of me had always hoped that one day I'd be able to take my kids to see our "Nutcracker" and say your mom did that.

DAVILA: Now, that won't happen. The company's current artistic director, Peter Boal, says this is the right time to retire this production.

PETER BOAL: I have been very proud to present the Stowell-Sendak one, so it's not a come in, clean house and move on.

DAVILA: Even though Boal is attached to this "Nutcracker" because all three of his kids have danced in it. He's also sentimental about the version choreographed by George Balanchine. That's the "Nutcracker" he danced in many, many times when he was a member of the New York City Ballet. So he's bringing it here, making it a new production with sets and costumes by contemporary children's author Ian Falconer, best known for his books about a very cultured pig named Olivia. For NPR News, I'm Florangela Davila in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TCHAIKOVSKY - THE NUTRACKER - DANCE OF THE SUGARPLUM FAIRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.