It is almost time for the holiday season to begin! And, in Seattle, that means only one thing! The Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Stowell-Sendak version of the classic Nutcracker ballet.
The PNB’s Nutcracker is a very special work, a collaboration between famed children’s book author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, and PNB Founding Artistic Director and choreographer, Kent Stowell and drawing from the classic story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and music by Tchaikovsky.
The Sendak and Stowell Nutcracker production premiered at the Seattle Center Opera House on December 13, 1983.
It was an instantaeous mega hit both in Seattle and nationally. Newsweek Magazine extolled: “Forget the Space Needle, forget the Ring Cycle, forget Mt. Rainier—this Nutcracker alone is worth a trip to Seattle.”
“Pacific Northwest Ballet broke all box office records in its nine-year history of performances with an incredible 99% capacity audience for the new Nutcracker. Twenty-six performances were presented December 13–31 to 78,000 people; approximately 16% of Seattle’s population!” PNB press release following 1983 Nutcracker premiere.
Maurice Sendak (l) and Kent Stowell (r) with Company dancers (l-r) Christopher Stowell, Patricia Barker, Alaina Albertson (Clara), Wade Walthall, and Hugh Bigney (Drosselmeier) during Nutcracker‘s world premiere curtain call, 1983. © David Cooper
As most people know, the Nutcracker ballet is based upon a story written in 1816 by E. T. A. Hoffmann, entitled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” The tale reveals that young Marie Stahlbaum’s favorite Christmas toy, a nutcracker, comes to life, defeats the evil Mouse King, and whisks the Fraulein away to a magical kingdom. In 1892, Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky collaborated with choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to turn Alexandre Dumas pere’s adaptation of the story into the ballet we all know and love. Over time, the Nutcracker became one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous compositions and arguably the most popular ballet world wide.
So, how did Seattle’s Stowell and famed illustrator Maurice Sendak decide to update the old ballet? It is a very interesting story, told here by the principals:
Maurice Sendak in 1984 said of his collaboration on the ballet: “My immediate reaction to the request that I design Nutcracker was negative. I was flattered, but my reasons for saying no were plentiful. To begin with, who in the world needed another Nutcracker? ….Of course I did it. Most of my doubts and worries were put to rest when Kent Stowell and I met for the first time early in 1981 in New York City. I liked him immediately for not wanting me to do Nutcracker for all the obvious reasons but rather because he wished me to join him in a leap into the unknown. He suggested we abandon the predictable Nutcracker and find a fresh version that did honor to Hoffman, Tchaikovsky, and ourselves. Later that year, Kent invited me to Seattle to see the company’s old Nutcracker. By then I had fallen in love with the project and after that Christmas of 1981, I set to work in earnest.”
during Nutcracker dress rehearsal,
1983. © David Cooper
Kent Stowell discussed the collaborative work in 1983, “Maurice and I went back to the original Nutcracker story by E.T.A. Hoffman and incorporated much more of the story into the production.”
Stowell and Sendak delved deeply into the original story of Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” infusing their new ballet with a drama and strength that fully complements Tchaikovsky’s rich score, while creating a kaleidoscope of roles for all levels of the Company and School.
Stowell continued: “Clara and Herr Drosselmeier are the central figures though the story essentially remains the same. The essence of the Nutcracker story is really a fantasy dreamed by Clara, a young girl on the verge of growing up. The ballet is seen unfolding through her eyes, in an atmosphere tinged with mystery, where there are no boundaries between dream and reality. We worked on this new production for two years; seeing our plans become a reality for our company is an incredible accomplishment—one we feel will be well worth it for all our Nutcracker fans.”
In 1984, the year following the premier of the brilliant Stowell-Sendak Nutcracker in Seattle, a new edition of the original E.T.A. Hoffman story, illustrated by Sendak, was published and hit the New York Times Bestseller List. It remained there for eight weeks.
In 1986, a feature-length film of the Stowell-Sendak Nutcracker was produced, premiered in Seattle, and was released nationwide.
The important thing to remember about this ballet, however, is that this is the last year it will be performed.
Catch it if you can! It is so worth the trouble!
See here for information on PNB Nutcracker.