Nutcracker or Buttcracker? In Seattle, this holiday show comes in naughty and nice
The first "Nutcracker" ballet was not a success.
That may surprise you, because every big city in America boasts at least one holiday "Nutcracker" production.
In the Seattle area, audiences can sample almost a dozen different professional stagings, from Pacific Northwest Ballet’s rendition of the 1954 George Balanchine version to a contemporary hair metal band send-up based on the "Nutcracker" story.
About that story.
The original 1892 ballet — the one that wasn’t a hit — is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Hoffmann wrote of a little girl whose favorite Christmas toy, a nutcracker, comes to life and successfully battles rodent royalty.
Two Russian dance makers, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, came up with the idea of adapting this German tale for St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Ballet Company. They tapped composer Peter Tchaikovsky to write the score.
Reportedly, Tchaikovsky wasn’t wild about the project; the ballet’s premiere was tacked onto the debut of his opera, “Iolanta.” The music was well-received, but the ballet itself all but faded away for a few decades.
Fast forward more than 100 years, and "Nutcracker" ballets are big business in the United States.
The first full-length American production was in 1944, at San Francisco Ballet. Ten years later, Balanchine, inspired by his childhood memories of dancing in the St. Petersburg "Nutcracker," created a version for his company New York City Ballet.
Balanchine dispatched the story of the girl, her nutcracker and the enemy mouse in the first act. After an intermission and the renowned "Waltz of the Snowflakes," the young girl and her now-human nutcracker prince travel to the enchanted land of sweets, where they meet a huge cast of characters led by the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Balanchine’s production has been remounted in ballet companies around the country; PNB artistic director Peter Boal brought it to his Seattle company in 2015, retiring a 32-year old production created by the company’s prior artistic director, Kent Stowell.
PNB depends on Nutcracker for 20% of its annual budget; at other companies that figure may be even higher.
But PNB's "Nutcracker" faces stiff competition this year. In addition to traditional versions at Cornish College of the Arts, Ballet Northwest in Olympia, and Evergreen City Ballet productions in Renton, Auburn and Bellevue, audiences have their pick of several contemporary take-offs, including Dass Dance’s brand new Seattle Nutcracker.
Seattle Theatre Group will present Mark Morris’ acclaimed “The Hard Nut,” celebrating its 28th anniversary this year. Morris uses Tchaikovsky’s original score as well as the E.T.A. Hoffmann story, but they’re launching pads for a gender-bending experience with visual inspiration from Charles Burns’ comic book art.
Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theatre will present a workshop version of Donald Byrd’s 1996 “Harlem Nutcracker,” set to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s jazz adaptation of the Tchaikovsky score.
Byrd has taken Hoffmann’s 19th century German tale and transported it to an African American family living in Harlem.
Speaking of the Ellington/Strayhorn score, you can see the award-winning Roosevelt High School perform this music as well, in a program called "Jazz Nutcracker."
Finally, two Nutcrackers that are very much R-Rated fare: Lily Verlaine and Jasper McCann’s “Land of the Sweets: Burlesque Nutcracker,” a bawdy makeover of the original family fare that runs at the Triple Door.
There's also the very last production of what’s become a local cult favorite, “Buttcracker V: the last thrust!,” in which well-known contemporary dancers give "Nutcracker" the hair metal band treatment.