Can't dance, but I sure can do 'old' in the Nutcracker
Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker is renowned for pushing the limits of stage illusion. But I'm concerned they might finally have pushed too far. They had me in it.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker is renowned for pushing the limits of stage illusion. But I'm concerned they might finally have pushed too far.
They had me in it.
Yes, I "danced" in the ballet.
For Friday night's performance, I was aged 40 years or so by dint of wig and makeup, then stuffed into a unitard (!) to play a guest role as "Grandfather" in the ballet's hallucinatory Maurice Sendak version of the holiday classic.
I'll tell you how I did in a minute (preview: my 8-year-old son said I looked like "a zombie").
But first: Did you know there's talking in the Nutcracker?
It's not in the script. That's all magic from dream-inspired visuals combined with the musical score of Tchaikovsky.
But up on stage, as well as in the wings, there's as much chatter during the performance as you'd find in any neighborhood pub.
"#&%!!!," erupted one of the dancing snowflakes as she whirled by me off the McCaw Hall stage during the glorious snowfall scene at the close of Act I.
Stagehands explained she probably had inhaled a flake of artificial snow.
This is what I love most about PNB's Nutcracker — it's not all candy canes and gumdrops, like some productions. It's a fever dream. The sweetness and light are served up with just a hint of Jack Nicholson's hotel in "The Shining."
When the ballet opened, I was already onstage, hidden behind screens along with scores of svelte dancers, excited children and wisecracking stagehands.
It sounded to me that the orchestra was playing too softly to mask all the noise we were making.
"Why is there a gravedigger on the set?" someone called. Everyone laughed. A man dressed in black was mysteriously wandering around the stage with a shovel, menacing the children. Mind you this is after the ballet had started.
I must have looked concerned. My expert guide for the night — Kathy Del Beccaro, a veteran supernumerary, or extra, who has been playing "Grandmother" in PNB's Nutcracker for years — told me not to worry.
"The audience can't hear us," she said. "You'll be surprised what gets said up here on stage."
All delivered with a smile, it turns out. In keeping with the illusion.
My role is most nights played by someone who knows what he's doing. But for a decade or so, the ballet has invited various sports stars or media figures to fill in, just for fun and publicity.
The best take on it all comes from John Curley, former host of KING-TV's "Evening Magazine," who played Grandfather several times:
"We stand in the back and move with all the grace of a printing press as dancers float by and whisper insulting little things under their breaths to us," he said.
Players on the former team the Sonics, such as Vin Baker and Vladimir Radmanovic, had their ballet debuts as Grandfather. KOMO weatherman Steve Pool is a repeat performer. Former Mariners pitcher Jeff Nelson tried it, as did, last year, Husky roundballer Quincy Pondexter (still remembered fondly in the Nutcracker wings as "Q-Pon").
Could I measure up? I don't have the height or star power of the Sonics, the high-wattage personality of a Pool or Curley, or the finesse of a Q-Pon.
I had to go with what I know. That'd be grumpy old man.
During my 20 minutes on stage, during the opening party scene, I milled about stiffly. When ebullient children raced by, I glared like they were lepers. When it came my turn to dance — led by an adorable and oh-so-patient child named Faye Hayden, who literally danced circles around me — I creaked about gingerly as if nursing bunions.
All part of the plan, I told myself.
"How'd I look?" I asked when I came offstage.
"Old," someone said.
"You didn't just look old," someone else said. "You moved old."
Yes! Nailed it!
Take that Curley, Baker and Pool. You've been trumped, Radmanovic, Nelson and Q-Pon.
There's a new Grandfather in town.
Someone mentioned backstage that in the ballet world, Nutcracker is known as the "gateway drug." Enter this funhouse as a child and you're lost in it. For life.
I guess you're never too old to get hooked.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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