Soon now…very, very soon!

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.”

(l-r) Maurice Sendak & Kent Stowell
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.

Il Palio, Part 2


A poster for the Palio 2010

After posting the blog post from on the Siena Palio, I am inspired to add from my personal recollections of the race.  I was incredibly fortunate to attend a Palio in the early 1990s.



My Italian boyfriend said the Palio was not to be missed and he made a lot of special arrangements for my first experience. He was assolutamente right–it was not to be missed!

We drove to Siena that day from his home in Assisi.  He had used his contacts so we could watch the race from a balcony window to the left of the Palazzo Publico and I prepared to be amazed.  I was indeed!

It was an unbelievable thrill to be a part of the living history of the Palio.  We stood outdoors on the balcony on a warm sunny Italian pomeriggio with a perfect view of the entire race.  It was an incredible experience to be there.


My favorite part of the day of the race was the banner guard that circled the race track prior to the race.  Each contrada enters their own people wearing their own contrada colors.  It felt like I had time traveled back to the Italian Renaissance.





I grew up with a horse-loving father and we not only rode horses but attended rodeos almost every summer Sunday.  I even competed in some of the events.  Sadly for my father, I am not a lover of risk-taking horseback riding, either to do or to watch.  Because of that, it was hard for me to watch certain parts of the Palio, for the race is still brutal even though it is much less so than it was during its early centuries; horses and riders careen into the temporary walls set up all around the periphery and riders fall off horses and get trampled.  It is all very chancy. You can see it in this video:

palio9 palio11 palio palio1 palio2 palio3 palio4  palio6 palio7

After the event was over, we ran around all the side streets in all the contrade (neighborhoods of old Siena), which were filled to overflowing with rabid fans (think American super bowl fan fanaticism)




all wearing their contrada colors.



Streets decked in the contrada flag

Each contrada maintains a museum of sorts with all sorts of paraphernalia from years past.  These museums are typically only open on the day of Palio, so it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see not only the race, but the museums as well.

Siena split into contrade, with colours and flags



Contrada flags

The one aspect of the Palio that absolutely blew my mind is that the winning horse is brought into the Siena Cathedral! The secular and divine come together in patrioticism.

The contrade parade out of the Duomo


Blessing in the Duomo, August 2010

Somehow I just never thought I would live to see the day when I’d see a horse in a magnificent Italian cathedral!!  But that was before I knew Italy at all!



Here are some more fun shots of the hysteria surrounding this annual event in Tuscany!


Contradaioli friends

Contradaioli battle for a place on the barricades

The Palio atop the

The horses are brought into the Campo by their stablemen

A horse with its stableman

The Palio dell'Assunta, Siena, August 2010

No ordinary horserace: the Palio in Siena. Part 1


As the horses and their bare-back riders line up against the starting rope in Piazza del Campo, you can almost taste the anxiety, agitation and adrenaline, rising up from the 40,000-strong crowd. The last few weeks, months and years of planning have all led to this moment. And the next one and half minutes will decide the happiness of one of Siena’s contrade for the year to come and even beyond. This is the legendary Palio di Siena horse race and it’s a spectacle not to be missed!

The Palio dell'Assunta, Siena 2010 The Palio dell’Assunta, Siena 2010

The Palio is a piece of living history. The tradition of horse racing in Italy goes back to Ancient Roman days when a pallium, or precious piece of material, was awarded to the winner. In medieval times, the Senese people held races called palii alla lunga through the city streets, with the winner being the first bull…

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