When Kent Stowell and his wife, Francia Russell, took over artistic leadership at Pacific Northwest Ballet more than 30 years ago they wanted to build the tiny regional dance company into a national ballet powerhouse. To help them reach that goal, they decided to create a signature holiday production at PNB, a ballet that would distinguish them from all the other American ballet companies.
The logical choice was a new adaptation of "Nutcracker," the story of a young girl who's given a nutcracker doll that magically comes to life. Different versions of this Christmas story are performed across the country.
"Every major ballet company has their own 'Nutcracker,'" Stowell says.
So Stowell and Russell approached the late children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak and invited him to design the sets and costumes for their new "Nutcracker." Stowell choreographed the dances.
The mere idea of a locally-generated holiday ballet seemed to ignite Seattle's collective imagination. According to Stowell, three months before the new "Nutcracker" debuted, PNB had sold more than 1,200 tickets.
Throughout its long life in Seattle the ballet was, and continues to be, an economic mainstay for the PNB. It generates approximately 25 percent of PNB's annual $22 million dollar budget. And the distinctive Sendak designs are well known to many Puget Sound-area families, who make "Nutcracker" an annual holiday ritual.
That's why it was so shocking when PNB's current artistic director, Peter Boal, announced that 2014 would be the ballet's swan song. Boal says attendance has fallen off since 2008, with the onset of the Great Recession.
Starting in 2015, PNB will present legendary choreographer George Balanchine's version of "Nutcracker," with sets and costumes by Ian Falconer, creator of the "Olivia" children's books.
"We were sort of looking at how many new people were coming in every year," Boal explains. He and other staff members felt it was time to "refresh" the production.
"Not to say it's not a gamble, but we just felt it [replacing "Nutcracker"] was the right decision."
Stowell couldn't disagree more. "It's an icon for the city," he says of the ballet he and Sendak created three decades ago. "It's as if we said, well, I want to see a new Space Needle, so we're going to tear it down and do another one."
Seattle dance writer Sandra Kurtz also questions the wisdom of jettisoning a signature production like "Nutcracker." "It's a huge change for them, it will require institutional time, a lot of retooling," Kurtz says.
But Kurtz says the story of the young girl and her magical doll has withstood a lot of tinkering over the years. She's optimistic that PNB will weather the change successfully.
"They are my hometown team, and I would very much hope that I love this new production as much as the old one."
Boal is certain she, and thousands of other Northwesterners, will.
"I've seen the magic that it brings to audiences and to families," he says quietly. "People come to the ballet for the very first time, and their eyes open, and they leave changed."
Northwest audiences get their last chance to see the Stowell-Sendak "Nutcracker" this winter. In 2015, Pacific Northwest Ballet debuts a new version of the holiday classic.