Farewell Mouse King and thanks!

More than 30 years ago, a gigantic mouse dropped from the ceiling of the Seattle Opera house, completing a battle between dancing rodents and knee-knocking wooden soldiers. Audible gasps ran through the audience as cannons boomed earlier and there were gasps when the massive puppet appeared. A small boy sitting in the balcony gulped and then turned to a complete stranger to whisper about how great that battle was. My father kindly whispered back that he liked the mice and the cannons too.

These days, I have a dozens of holiday memories tied up with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” So does the rest of the city. The production has become such an integral part of the Seattle holiday season since 1983 that the announcement that this would be the last year sent the same audible gasps through the community as that first appearance of the giant Mouse King.

My greatest frustration the first time that I went to the Kent Stowell (choreographer) and Maurice Sendak (designer) “Nutcracker” was that I just couldn’t see it all. There was a wealth of visual detail worked into the sets and costumes, from the cavorting mice painted on backdrops to the sly references to picture book author Sendak’s wonderful “wild things.” Stowell choreographed so many big moments of dance, including the huge finale at the Pasha’s palace, and such delightful small bits of comedy, like Drosselmeier’s sneeze, that I knew I missed something. I walked out of that first “Nutcracker” determined to go back and see it all.

Fast forward a decade or so. I started writing about dance for a local newspaper and attending “The Nutcracker” became an annual ritual. Over the years, I chatted with dancers, musicians, conductors, costumers, backstage crew, gift store managers and the guy who made it snow. A close friend routinely volunteered to be “Grandmother” in the party scene and we’d talk over coffee about the kids she literally watched grow up on the stage. Everyone involved always moaned not too seriously about the long run, and how December became all “Nuts” all the time, and yet – every year something caught their eye or stuck in their memory. Some moment, maybe the children in the party scene or a new corps member becoming a snowflake twirling in the blue light, became the moment of that year’s “Nutcracker.” The one that made the performance seem as fresh as their first time.

And, as many times as I’ve seen this “Nutcracker,” I’m still sure that I’ve missed a detail. That somewhere there’s one more turbaned mouse painted into the set that I haven’t spotted yet.

But I’ve said my final goodbyes. Unlike a few other pundits, I don’t think losing this production means losing part of Seattle’s soul. The company is planning next year’s “Nutcracker” to be a glorious and lovely new experience at McCaw Hall – and I hope it causes just as many gasps of surprise as that first run of the Stowell and Sendak “Nutcracker” so many years ago.

Current PNB artistic director Peter Boal’s good taste and great dance sense will bring Seattle a new “Nutcracker” designed by “Olivia the Pig” author/artist Ian Falconer (and using Balanchine’s choreography) that will become just as beloved. Change has to happen to keep art fresh.

But, for one last time, thank you for the memories to all the company, and most of all to Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, the company’s founding artistic directors who took an enormous gamble so many years ago to launch this “Nutcracker,” thanks for all the memories.

This article originally appeared on Examiner.com


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