by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN Contributing Writer
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET
STOWELL AND SENDAK
Nov. 28-Dec. 28
It's that time of year again - the holly-jolly season when The Nutcracker makes its annual appearance in ballet companies everywhere. Families who don't attend another dance performance all year get their kids dressed up in tutus and bowties to see the ballet version of E.T.A. Hoffman's 1816 scary-tale 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.' Performed to Tchaikovsky's music in various choreographic versions by dance companies in all fifty states, it's also being staged in Copenhagen, London, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Cuba, Peru, and Tokyo, according to a website that tracks the hundreds of offerings of The Nutcracker worldwide during the month of December.
For the past thirty-one years Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet has been the proud producer of one of the most distinctive versions of Tchaikovsky's familiar musical tale of the little girl whose nutcracker soldier comes to life under the Christmas tree to battle the wicked mice and take her to a magical land of - in traditional versions - the Sugarplum Fairy and her troupe of dancing candy canes, snowflakes, flowers, and folk dancers. In Seattle, however, the little girl, Clara, turns into a grown-up and takes a boat to a land governed by the Pasha - a big, mean guy in a gigantic turban who cracks his whip at a variety of enslaved birds, monsters and 'dervishes.'
This lavish production, choreographed by PNB co-founder Kent Stowell and designed by children's picture-book writer Maurice Sendak, uses Tchaikovsky's music for its own purposes. According to Gemma Wilson's article in the current City Arts, not only was the Stowell/Sendak version of Nutcracker developed to give the company a financial boost (it's been a huge success) but it was also meant to give the sugary story something of its original scary edge. Wilson quoted Sendak as saying 'My feeling is this [production] has to be disturbing to children.'
At the sold-out performance I attended on the evening of November 29 there were very few disturbed children, though one howling youngster had to be carried out during the second act. Instead, there were a great many happy adults, and a sprinkling of well-behaved elementary and middle-schoolers. The little girl in pink who sat in front of me was perched on the edge of her booster cushion the entire time, as intrigued, I think, by all the other children dancing on the stage as by the exotic characters and cartoon-style settings. This production does a wonderful job of incorporating the students in the PNB School of Dance into the cast of party guests, mice, toy infantry and cavalry, 'servant children,' and Toy Theater children. There are more than 150 roles, and though the adult dancers take on more than one part, the dozens and dozens of children involved each have their own contribution to make in what, for many, is their first professional appearance on stage.
Any discussion of this performance, however, has to take note of the fact that Artistic Director Peter Boal is retiring the Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker, and that this is the last time any of us will see what has become a stalwart part of the Seattle artistic scene. A lively conversation is taking place - in the lobby, in the coffee shops, in the elevator, in the press - among those who approve of this daring move to replace PNB's cash cow with a newly designed Balanchine version, and those who are bereft at the idea of losing Seattle's very own, very famous, and very beloved production. Many dance lovers - and many more people who only go to this one dance each year - can't imagine why Director Boal would do away with something everyone loves.
Well, I can imagine why. For one thing, not everyone loves it. Speaking for myself, I have never been a big fan of this version of The Nutcracker for two reasons: 1) Kent Stowell's choreography and 2) Maurice Sendak's design.
'What?' I can hear you say. 'Stowell and Sendak are the very reason we have such a great Nutcracker!'
Well, disappointed reader, read on - and consider the possibility that what was an innovative and edgy design concept thirty years ago has become a shop-worn collection of racial clichés in the 21st century. Consider also the possibility that although we can be forever grateful to Kent Stowell and his wife, Francia Russell, for founding and supporting PNB for three decades, that does not require us to say, out of loyalty, that Stowell's choreography is very good when it is, at best, rather dull.
In fact, Stowell's works - not just his Nutcracker, but his Cinderella, Swan Lake, Hail the Conquering Hero - most of his choreographic efforts are distinctly lacking in variety, complexity, and imagination. I think of his style as 'run, run, pose' - the dancer is asked to run a few steps, then strike a pose; run a few more steps, strike another pose. In Nutcracker, for instance, the Dance of the Snowflakes could be more aptly be called the Dance of the Thundering Snowflakes since Stowell has his dancers leaping in groups of four, back and forth across the stage, not only invoking a carnival turkey shoot, but creating the sound (as a companion suggested) of wild turkeys running through a forest. Shouldn't snowflakes be stepping quietly, gesturing gently, forming the geometrics of snowflakes as they move across the stage? (Just wait until you see the Balanchine snowflakes, whose formations melt and reform kaleidoscopically during this waltz).
The problem is not only a paucity of imaginative movement, but that the works are under-choreographed - Stowell simply doesn't give his dancers enough to do. One critic used the word 'threadbare' to describe his choreography in Cinderella, and the term could also be used here. The brilliant Batkuhrel Bold as the Prince practically has the night off, standing around showing us his good posture, lifting his Clara, Carla Korbes, up and down now and then. She has very little to do as well, stepping around on her toes, executing standard movement in predictable ways - like the pre-Nureyev Margot Fontaine - correct, technical, but not exciting. Even the children are under-choreographed, rocking doll babies, waving wooden swords, skipping in circles, with the exception of four little couples in the second act. (Who are they? What is their purpose? The story - though acted in dumb show at five different points in the ballet - is never clear.) Yet these kids were actually given real steps to dance, and were, for me, the highlight of the evening, because they were the only dancers - children or professionals - who were not being moved around the stage either in pantomime or in dances that did not reflect a true relationship with the score. So what if Tchaikovsky's Spanish dance has castanets? The five couples called 'Moors' in the program simply ignore the inflections that are inserted for a dance they are not doing - and the audience is expected to ignore these inconsistencies as well.
The fact that there are 'Moors,' 'Dervishes,' and a central character called the 'Pasha' brings me to the problem with Maurice Sendak's design in the 21st century. His desire to make Nutcracker 'disturbing to children' is fine, as far as I'm concerned - let's stir them up a little! Make them drop their Leapsters and Xbox controllers! Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is wonderfully disturbing - weird, scary, and reassuring all at once. But there are no racial stereotypes in that classic picture book, whereas the stereotyping of Nutcracker characters - people in turbans, people with brown skin and kinky black hair, 'Chinese' girls and boys - might have been 'exotic' thirty years ago, but are inappropriate now. I grew up singing 'The cannibal king with the big nose ring/fell in love with a dusky dame' but I have never taught it to the children in our family. What was OK 'back in the day' is not OK now.
Yes, Tchaikovsky used musical cliché's to describe racial difference, particularly in the very familiar Chinese and Hindu dances. But Sendak is a product of the late 20th century, not the 19th century. We can see in the news every day the consequences of ignoring racial stereotypes, however subtle. Do we really want kids being 'disturbed' by men wearing turbans in an age when we need to bend over backward not to demonize the people of Sikh or Muslim faith, or people from Afghanistan, India or Iran who wear turbans? Do we really want kids to see white men dressing up like 'dervishes' (read 'savages') in kinky wigs and brown skin suits? There were quite a few people of color in the audience on the 29th - I wanted to ask them how they felt about the 'exotic' motifs in this Nutcracker, but I didn't have the nerve. Or perhaps I was too embarrassed.
At any rate, it's time - even past time - to exchange this lazy choreography and problematic exoticism for something truly excellent. An entire generation has been lulled into passively applauding the Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker because they haven't been shown the dances that fit the music, the dances that build layer upon layer of complexity, that bring out the best in each dancer, that challenge and thrill the audience all at once. I predict that by next year at this time all controversy about retiring this production will have melted away in the bright light of the newly designed Balanchine Nutcracker (which, I hope, will have found a way to avoid Tchaikovsky's 'Arab Coffee' and 'Chinese Tea' clichés). The little girl in pink who sat in front of me on the 29th will still be perched on the edge of her booster cushion, but she won't be seeing people of color as exotic or disturbing, and she won't be seeing talented dancers standing around looking pretty. She'll be seeing a Nutcracker worthy of the great dance company that PNB has become, and the discerning audiences that we will become when we are exposed to works of the highest quality.
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