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Tuesday, November 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Dance Review
PNB's "Nutcracker" enchants audiences of all ages

By Mary Murfin Bayley
Special to The Seattle Times

ANGELA STERLING
Retiring director Kent Stowell as Herr Drosselmeier in PNB's "Nutcracker," conceived by Stowell with Maurice Sendak.
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When retiring Pacific Northwest Ballet director Kent Stowell stepped onto the stage of McCaw Hall to perform the character role of Herr Drosselmeier, the packed opening-night audience for "Nutcracker" greeted him with applause. It was well deserved.

The production of this ballet, now in its 21st year, which Stowell conceived with children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, has been a financial and artistic success for the company. Despite some questionable costuming (more on that below), this "Nutcracker," with its fantastical and coherent stage design, will continue to enchant audiences for years to come.

In the Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker," Herr Drosselmeier is a familiar and slightly frightening family friend to young Clara, as well as ring master of the evening's mystery and magic. Stowell, a wonderful character actor — his timing of a sneeze or the presentation of a gift nutcracker were comic perfection — led the cast of marvelous young dancers with warmth, wit and gusto.

Friday night's casting of soloists, corps members and newer principals in the major roles emphasized the depth of talent at PNB fostered by Stowell and co-artistic director Francia Russell. The future of the company was also well represented by the many young dancers of the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Their discipline, correct technique and enthusiasm were a delight.

"Nutcracker," Pacific Northwest Ballet, through Dec. 28, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center; $19 to $96 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).
The adult Clara was danced with sweetness and delicacy by Mara Vinson, a lovely dancer trained at the PNB School and promoted to soloist only this year. She was partnered with engaging warmth by Casey Herd as the prince. Corps member Maria Chapman performed the caged peacock with gorgeous pathos and dexterity. Jonathan Porretta's Harlequin was crisp and compelling. Stacy Lowenberg and Batkhurel Bold performed the leaping Moors with dash. Carrie Imler led the Waltz of the Flowers with expansive lyricism.

The child dancers included Kirra Steinbrueck as young Clara, Jordan Veit as Franz, Emma Baker as young Princess Pirlipat as well as dozens of beautifully precise children in the roles of party guests, toy soldiers, mice, servants and a group of eight dancing a complex toy theater.

Stewart Kershaw and the orchestra brought out the subtlety and liveliness in the familiar P.I. Tchaikovsky music.

The colorful, detailed costumes and scenery of this distinctive "Nutcracker" continue to charm, evoking images from gingerbread houses, fairy tales and the Arabian Nights.

However, this year particularly, the headdresses of the menacing warrior mice, veiled in long scarves, were a distraction. They couldn't help but bring to mind the horrors of the ongoing war in the Middle East, connotations that did not exist when Sendak conceived of these costumes. The poor little battle between toy soldiers and mice was never meant to carry such heavy freight.

Apart from that, "Nutcracker" continues to be joy, outside of time, place and history. The thrill of the children both in the audience and on the stage is contagious. Then there is that most enchanting and peaceful of scenes, worth coming back for each season, when dancers in ice blue tulle shift and turn like drifting snow and the snowflakes shimmer down.

Mary Murfin Bayley: marybayley@aol.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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