Where the Wild Things call home - The Sendak-Stowell 'Nutcracker' is 20 years forever-young

Maurice Sendak's groundbreaking picture book, "Where the Wild Things Are" (1963), just celebrated its 40th birthday. His equally gorgeous and strange designs for Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker" just celebrated their 20th anniversary at the Marion Oliver McCaw Hall.

For anyone under 40, the early controversies surrounding Sendak's art must seem very odd. We are a generation raised on his large-eyed, big-nosed, slightly grotesque view of the world - a world that children "get" but adults found troubling in the 1960s. Sendak didn't paint pretty picture books, and many librarians and early literary critics warned his images might cause nightmares for the little ones.

A long-gone Seattle dance critic made almost the same criticism when Pacific Northwest Ballet premièred its Sendak-designed "Nutcracker" in 1983. The production just wasn't as lovely as the PNB's old "Nutcracker," complained the critic, and probably wouldn't last.

I remember that review distinctly because I read it after staggering home, my mind full of fantastic images of mice dressed as Russian soldiers and Turkish pashas, from my first viewing of PNB's production.

Being a huge fan of Sendak, having grown up with "Wild Things," I'd told my family that I wanted tickets for my Christmas present as soon as the production was announced that year. By the first intermission, I knew I'd seen a show that was destined to become famous.

It should be noted that most critics that year, and in the years to come, caught up with the audiences and realized that this "Nutcracker" was a fabulous addition to the American ballet world.

I realized that one sourpuss reviewer, like the librarians of my childhood, just didn't understand Sendak. Children don't need pretty as much as they need something to inspire their own dreams. And there's enough of the marvelous, as well as sly, dry wit, in Sendak's art that it speaks to us even as adults. After 20 years and too many "Nutcrackers" to count, I still find that something new catches my eye each time I see this "Nutcracker."

Today, of course, the Sendak "Nutcracker" is so much a part of a Seattle Christmas that whole generations are building family traditions around it. People who saw it as children are bringing their own children to it, and probably planning to bring their grandchildren to it. And, like "Wild Things," this production wears its age well. The sets and costumes still give this version of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story a grand, gorgeous and, yes, slightly frightening vision, as does Kent Stowell's reworking of the tale in his choreography.

The company's 50 professional dancers, who have grown in depth and breadth of talent over the intervening 20 years, make the hardest steps seem as effortless as the paper snowflakes drifting down from the roof. If Stowell ever decides to change his choreography, he might give the principal dancers even more to do.

The opening afternoon performance featured Olivier Wevers as the Prince (Nutcracker) and Noelani Pantastico as the adult Clara. As always, Wevers gave his Prince a lot of twinkle while Pantastico seemed to have only a nodding acquaintance with gravity during her Act I entrance.

Another standout of Act I was Jonathan Poretta's Sword-Dancer Doll, a favorite moment for the small boy seated in front of me. Anne Guion danced the child Clara with real conviction and passion, as have all the students dancing Clara in the past!

Maria Chapman made a fine Peacock in Act II, usually a showstopper of a role, but the audience really noticed Ariana Lallone in the Waltz of the Flowers during the afternoon performance. Better known for her fireworks in roles like Carmen or her angular grace in PNB's modern works, Lallone dominated the stage whenever she appeared.

As always, the children and students of PNB's school were complete crowd pleasers and earned every moment of the applause.

PNB's program for the show points out a number of motifs in the sets, including the multiplying mice decorations. The sharp-eyed Sendak fan also will discover a Wild Thing at the beginning of Act II.[[In-content Ad]]