PNB Nutcracker 2012

Posted by: pat 4 years, 6 months ago

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I took Cathy to see Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker last night. I know some families go to this every year, but for us it is more of a once-and-done event due to the cost if nothing else. I would rather mix things up and go see A Christmas Carol or some other holiday themed performance that go to the Nutcracker every year. I took Elizabeth when she was about Cathy's age, after which we had our fateful and nauseating dinner at the Space Needle, an experience not to be repeated! So this is a review of sorts, but I am not qualified to weigh in on the subtle changes made each year, and I am not the Nutcracker expert I know some of our friends are.

We sat in the orchestra section, which is not cheap, and I consider it a special event and not an annual tradition. I enjoy the music, and it is always fun to see the dancers of all ages performing. It is really hard to go wrong with the PNB Nutcracker. The set designed by Maurice Sendak is a treat and local treasure.

The music was great. I love the music of the Nutcracker.  It is so ubiquitous at the holidays and remains enjoyable from year to year.  We took a peek at the orchestra pit before the performance, something I highly recommend if you are taking a child who hasn't seen a ballet or theatrical performance with live music before.

The performance was...OK I guess. It was definitely not the best Nutcracker I've seen. The music was good, the audience was well behaved, the set and set mechanics were wonderful as always.  There were several flubs which given the nature of the Nutcracker and how many children are in it are all par for the course. The peacock fell down. The Chinese tiger fell down. A little boy lost his ballet slipper and valiantly tried to continue dancing, hopping on one foot while trying to get the slipper back on the other before finally giving up and finishing the scene without it. Individually these are all forgivable but the cumulative effect is...well it is still forgivable but was definitely distracting.

My big beef (you knew it was coming!) is with the treatment of the Drosselmeyer character.

Drosselmeyer is the defining character of the Nutcracker. In my opinion he is probably the only character who really has a personality and room for directorial interpretation. The rest of the players are all very two-dimensional. Boys will be boys and play with guns and swords. Girls will be girls and play with dolls. Drosselmeyer however, with his offputting eyepatch and magical powers to bring toys to life, is the character who puts the whole story into motion.

IMDB has an interesting article on the character and some history of how the character is portrayed in different productions.  It even references the opening season of PNB's Nutcracker where he was dark and ominous, the way he should be!  While I remain very grateful that I have never seen what IMDB calls a "dirty old man" Drosselmeye (eww, yuck, that is just plain wrong and horrifying), I have always understood him to be a slightly frightening character.  Why else does he have that eyepatch?!  He should be forbidding and powerful, but still kindly.  He has supernatural powers, but he also gives delightful gifts and brings things to life with his magic.

I was quite disappointed that PNB chose to portray Drosselmeyer as a bumbling and dottering Mr. Magoo-like fool who was often a bit stooped over and surprised at what was happening around him.  He gets pulled this way and that by the party-goers and does not seem wholly in control of his own faculties.  This is a guy you chuckle about after the party, not one that makes small children simultaneously apprehensive and delighted.

What is even more odd is the way they played Drosselmeyer with the boys, goading them on to tease and taunt Clara with the rat king doll.  So not only is he a bumbling fool, but he is a spiteful one too who purposely sets the boys on the path of mischief-making multiple times.  He comes off as both mean and foolish.  This is a character to be scorned and dismissed.

All of this reminds me of the controversy that erupted among die-hard Tolkien fans over departures from canon in Peter Jackson's films, particularly the scene where Gandalf bumps his head in Bilbo's hobbit hole.  Critics state (correctly) that this never happened in the book, and that it makes Gandalf look like a bit of a fool.  Others say it humanized the character.  Maybe that is what PNB was thinking with Drosselmeyer:  make him more humorous and approachable.  Well...Gandalf isn't human, he is a wizard, and is one of the most powerful characters in Middle Earth.  "Approachable" isn't supposed to be one of the top adjectives to describe him, and I argue it isn't doing Drosselmeyer or the production any favors to humanize his character either.

And another thing:  the nutcracker gift to Clara wasn't even a proper nutcracker!  It was a stuffed doll.  Whatever.  You lost me with this PNB.  Too cutesy.

Well that's it.  That's my ballet review.  I will leave you now so I can go off and ponder what is happening that has brought my life to the point where I am reviewing ballet.

Addendum:  I had the chance to chat with my friend Jennifer about the performance.  Jennifer danced in the first season PNB did the Nutcracker with the Sendak sets, and has attended more than 30 PNB Nutcracker performances, including the performance earlier the same day as the one Cathy and I saw.  She informed me that the dancer playing Drosselmeyer in the performance we saw is a known ham who typically overplays any opportunity to insert comedic elements into his performance, so we had the worst of this flavor of Drosselmeyer.  She was also shocked! to hear that the peacock fell...something she has never witnessed.

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