PNB's "Nutcracker" never grows tutu old
Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker," designed by Maurice Sendak, is 25 years old. How do they keep the sets and costumes looking fresh?
Seattle Times movie critic
Fun factsSOME THINGS YOU might not have known about "Nutcracker" sets and costumes:
Cool cats: Look closely at some of the warrior mice in Act 1, and you'll see one of Sendak's little design jokes: The mice have dead cats slung over their shoulders.
Straight shots: The costume shop has a license to purchase grain alcohol, which is sprayed on costumes to eliminate odor. During "Nutcracker" season, PNB costume-shop manager Larae Theige Hascall said, the staff goes through an entire case. (And no, they don't drink it.)
Faux snow: In the snowflake scene, the snow is fireproof confetti. About 200 pounds of it are used in each performance, and it's reused every night (after a magnet is run through it, to find hairpins, staples and the like). It's expensive, Chiarelli said, and is only replaced every three to four years.
Hard labor: Loading in the sets (transported from PNB's Fremont storage facility) takes two 12-hour days for 40 people. During the "Nutcracker" run, an additional 36 stage crew members are hired to augment the usual seven.
Tough trees: The Christmas tree, made from honeycomb aluminum and epoxy resin, weighs 950 pounds and grows to 28 feet.
"Nutcracker"Presented by Pacific Northwest Ballet, opens Friday and runs through Dec. 30, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center; $24-$120 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).
A dancer, at her 25th birthday, is in her prime; however, a 25-year-old tutu or a scenic backdrop may be showing a little more wear. Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker," with its lavish Maurice Sendak designs, celebrates its quarter-century this year with a monthlong holiday run beginning Friday. How does the company keep the sets and costumes looking appropriately festive and sparkly? And how much of what we'll see on stage dates from the 1983 original production?
In terms of the costumes, few originals remain, said longtime PNB costume shop manager Larae Theige Hascall. The production requires about 190 costumes, not counting duplicates for double-cast roles, and over the years most have been at least partially replaced. A few Act 1 costumes — Frau Stahlbaum's dress, some of the fathers' coats, Drosselmeier's gray overcoat, the fight scene soldier coats — date from the original production, though they may have been adjusted, enlarged ("Kids are bigger these days!" noted Hascall) and/or relined.
The snowflake costumes, by contrast, are being partially remade and this year will have brand-new bodices, attached to filmy blue tutus last replaced a decade ago. In the party scene, "We rebuilt an aunt and a teenager, half of a mother," said Hascall. "The blue aunt was just replaced, and she was an original."
In Act 2, where the costumes are worn for the entire act and concluding bows, the designs take more of a beating. Dancers are hanging out backstage, sitting down, standing with hands on hips (a key place for costumes to get grubby, said Hascall). Though the wardrobe staff is able to wash (mostly by hand) most costume pieces, and carefully mends stress areas, the garments do eventually begin to rip and deteriorate. The costumes for adult Clara, for example, have been replaced numerous times — partnering, with the man's hands frequently lifting the woman at the waist, causes skirts to fray.
Hascall estimates that perhaps 10 percent of the costumes are being replaced this year, a process that began with last year's "Nutcracker," where wardrobe staff kept lists of items that needed work. Though the costume shop keeps extra bolts of "Nutcracker" costume fabric in storage whenever possible, it's often difficult to find precise matches. "Some of the colors are really difficult," said Hascall. "This is a very grayed palette, and it comes in and out of fashion." The shop will dye or tint fabrics when necessary, to achieve the closest possible blend with existing costumes. Often the trim from an old costume can be reused for a new one.
It's not set in stone
In contrast with the ever-evolving costumes, the original "Nutcracker" set has mostly endured over the years. Randall G. Chiarelli, PNB's technical director, notes that while the set still looks artful and seamless from the front, "If you look at it from behind it looks like Frankenstein's monster, with all the sutures." Most of the pieces have been repaired — "We've torn almost every piece in half at least once," noted Chiarelli — and their paint frequently touched up.
The most famous set piece, Act 1's rapidly growing Christmas tree, is holding up nicely — though it's not quite 25 years old. "The first tree, it was just absolutely awful," said Chiarelli, who was with PNB for the "Nutcracker" premiere. "It was dangerous. We hurt a bunch of people with it — not dancers, but stagehands. We were never quite sure it was going to get offstage in time."
Created by Boeing, the tree was rebuilt very early in the "Nutcracker" run and still works like a charm. "It's made out of the same material that you would make an airplane fuselage out of," said Chiarelli. "It's probably the closest thing to indestructible scenery I've ever seen."
Newly rebuilt from scratch last year was the Mouse King, the 27-foot puppet that dominates the Act 1 fight scene. "He works pretty hard; he gets hit by everything," said Chiarelli. The puppet is known backstage as Johnny Rat, after an unexpected rodent lodger in PNB's former scene-storage facility. Also new in recent years is the mouse scrim — the transparent drop cloth through which Clara peeks during her Act 1 nightmare.
Chiarelli said PNB is working on a three-year program to replace worn-out set pieces, particularly the two biggest backdrops: the snow forest and the Act 2 seraglio. "The seraglio drop got ripped a couple of years ago, and if you look really closely you can see the seam," he said.
In 1983, Chiarelli said, the entire set was built for about $275,000. "You couldn't replace it today for three million."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725
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