Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Ezra Thomson as Drosselmeier, with DianaStarr Robinson as Clara in the party scene from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. PNB’s acclaimed production returns to McCaw Hall November 26 – December 28, 2021. Photo © Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet's 2021 Nutcracker opener on Friday night was a welcome glimpse into beloved pre-pandemic traditions for local ballet fans. It was also a huge step away from the destructive traditions of racial and gender stereotyping that've plagued classical ballet since classical ballet was classical ballet. I am not writing about this to make a judgement call about whether PNB's measures go far enough to repair the damage done--every person has their own bar for this and every dance company has to make decisions that simultaneously uphold its progressive ethics and protect its economic survival. What I can tell you about is how much this performance rocked.
I love Nutcracker. The music and story are home to me, and oh boy I've seen a lot of Nutcrackers in my 44 years. What I've never seen is a Clara so full of love and joy in her role, so completely immersed in the magic of a growing Christmas tree that I was at times convinced she was actually surrounded by living peppermint people and adult-sized mice. 11 year old Pacific Northwest Ballet student DianaStarr Robinson was a radiant Clara on opening night, brava.
The Waltz of the Snowflakes, titled A Forest in Winter in Balanchine's Nutcracker, was performed this year by a talented mix of PNB's corps de ballet and professional division students. It's typically not my favorite part, I'm usually hyped up from the battle scene and just want to see the Sugar Plum Fairy, but last night I was enamored by the rare ecstatic grace of this troupe of snowflakes. They all looked so happy and more...flitty? Light and airy ballerinas swooped through falling snow as Ian Falconer's stunning set of winter trees settled around the stage. Tchaikovsky's score, performed by a *live* PNB orchestra, felt more vibrant after a long pandemic absence. One flake, with graceful shoulders and a brilliant smile, was a dancer assigned to a male body at birth. One of a couple of gender-neutral PNB dancers, this artist performed on pointe as a snowflake and in Act II's marzipan variation in a tutu, in roles traditionally assigned to cisgender women. Male dancers have performed on pointe before, but usually in spoof performances such as the famed Les Ballets Trockadero des Monte Carlo. But as we saw on Friday night--and will see again throughout PNB's 2021-22 season--the strength, grace, fluidity, and regal qualities of these traditionally female roles are not qualities that only female-born bodies possess.
The program notes from PNB artistic director Peter Boal marked a big change in a charged issue surrounding the unmistakable racist imagery in Act II's "cultural" tour of sweets and treats. The "Chinese" variation was (and still is) performed for decades by dance companies around the world in basic yellowface, caricaturing Chinese culture in all sorts of incorrect and highly offensive ways. PNB worked with the Balanchine Trust (the legal body granting permission to dance companies to perform Balanchine choreography) to rework the "Tea" variation into a less offensive tribute to Chinese culture. Represented by a grasshopper (a token of good luck in Chinese culture) instead of a Chinese man, the main dancer in this variation leaped around the stage and rubbed his limbs together. Every variation in the Land of the Sweets was originally connected to a specific culture, and we can discuss for hours whether changing the names and imagery in the dances erases or at least eases the racial stereotyping. But who wants to read a blog post for hours (or write one for that matter)?