In Tchaikovsky’s classic, The Nutcracker, the Stahlbaums do Christmas right. Not only has their house been gorgeously decorated, it’s the size of the mainstage at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts. Their daughter Clara and son Fritz expect a visit from their godfather, Drosselmeyer, who has a knack for imbuing magic into handmade toys. This year, his gift for Clara is a human-sized nutcracker. Come the stroke of midnight, Clara and her intrepid, animated nutcracker will face the attack of a seven-headed Mouse King, then tour the Land of Snow and the Land of Sweets. Say that’s not a holiday getaway to remember.
It was harder to remember last year, though, as the COVID pandemic forced Ballet Northwest to take its annual Nutcracker spectacular online. This year marks the show’s jubilant return to its usual venue, the abovementioned Washington Center, with Ballet Northwest co-artistic directors Josie and Ken Johnson at the helm. Guest artist Lucas Horns of Salt Lake City, Utah’s Ballet West will dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier. Company dancers Elina Brein and Nina Ivanenko alternate in the role of Clara, alongside a cast of over 150 performers including over 60 Ballet Northwest students.
“One of our previous Nutcracker guest artists had danced with Lucas in Ballet West,” Ken Johnson explains. Horns then performed in Ballet Northwest’s 2019 Nutcracker. “Lucas is an amazing performer, incredibly strong partner and wonderful person. He’s a great fit for our company,” Johnson adds.
The Nutcracker is a two-act ballet, first choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1892 to a score by Tchaikovsky. The libretto was based on a short story by Ernst Hoffmann. Interestingly, while Tchaikovsky’s climactic suite of dances was a hit, the original ballet production, at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia, was not. One critic even referred to debut Sugar Plum Fairy Antonietta Dell’Era as “corpulent.” In a slam for the ages, Russian danseur Nicolai Solyannikov added, “This coarse, ungraceful dancer is much to the German taste.” It wasn’t until George Balanchine’s revised staging at New York City Ballet in 1954 that The Nutcracker became an annual favorite there and elsewhere.
Of course, the ongoing pandemic has an impact on rehearsals and choreography. “We purposely made some of the scenes and groups dances smaller,” says Johnson, “so there aren’t as many people on stage at a given time. We also allowed larger windows of time between rehearsals to allow for sanitizing. Dancers have been masked for all rehearsals. There is partnering in this year’s production, particularly beautiful duets … In other areas of the production there is less contact between dancers, but we tried to design the choreography so it doesn’t really impact the story or experience. Also, some fully vaccinated dancers will perform without masks.”
Ballet Northwest continues to make use of beautiful Nutcracker settings designed by Jill Carter. With some justification, Johnson calls those elements “stunning, and more impressive than many big-city, professional-company sets.”
The company “has been performing The Nutcracker since before The Washington Center was built,” notes Johnson, referring to 1970s productions at The Evergreen State College. “Ballet Northwest artistic director emeritus Bud Johansen was on faculty at Evergreen for many years, and was instrumental in the creation of The Washington Center.” In fact, an 8-year-old Ken Johnson performed in one of those early shows.
“The Nutcracker truly is a quintessential holiday tradition,” says Johnson. “The dancing, sets, costumes and music, combined with the whole experience of coming downtown into the beautiful Washington Center during the holidays, make it unlike any other holiday tradition. Also, we make little changes from year to year that keep our production unique for repeat audiences. … The pace and energy of our production really make it unique and enjoyable for all ages — plus it’s less stressful and expensive than going to Seattle or Portland.”
As regards the rest of this year’s schedule, “We love our rotation of spring ballets that we perform over Mother’s Day weekend,” says Johnson. Thus, after the Olympia Dance Festival in March, Ballet Northwest will stage Swan Lake. Notes Johnson, “It’s fun and interesting for our dancers and audiences to revisit these well-known works every few years as they rotate through the repertory.”
The Washington Center requires proof of COVID vaccination or a negative COVID test from guests aged 12 or older. Testing appointments are available in front of the venue. Adult guests must also present a photo ID.
Photo credits: Ballet Northwest.
7:30 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 10-19
The Washington Center for the Performing Arts
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia