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Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dance Review

PNB's "Nutcracker": Pure joy, wonder forever frozen in time

Seattle Times arts critic

Magic can be hard to come by these days, but it's alive and well in the eyes of the children — and many of the adults — attending Pacific Northwest Ballet's gloriously designed presentation of that holiday perennial, "Nutcracker." Productions of this ballet are plentiful these days, in many forms (my young companion Friday night asked me, as we approached McCaw Hall, if this "Nutcracker" would be on ice), but it's hard to imagine one lovelier than this one.

For many of us, "Nutcracker" was our first ballet — an introduction into a dazzling world of pointe shoes and whirling tutus, tiaras and cavaliers, dancing dewdrops and dreams. Subsequently there's something about those first lilting notes of Tchaikovsky's score that acts as a tuneful time machine; like Proust's madelines, it takes us happily back in our memories, to a fantasy Christmas Eve where the snowflakes fall like tiny diamonds in a picture-perfect snowglobe.

Designed in 1983 by Maurice Sendak ("Where the Wild Things Are"), PNB's sets and costumes remain breathtaking. A dusty-pink Victorian parlor gives way to an exquisite ice-blue winter wonderland in Act I, while Act II unfolds in a seafoam-green magical kingdom, populated by the likes of rainbow-tailed peacocks and dancing Chinese tigers. The opening-night audience sighed and murmured in appreciation as each new spectacle arose, with children staring wide-eyed, forgetting to make a sound.

Now showing

"Nutcracker," 7:30 p.m. Fridays- Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays, starting Dec. 14 also 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, through Dec. 28; Pacific Northwest Ballet, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $18-$102 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).

Within this glorious spectacle, the dancing could well become an afterthought, and indeed Kent Stowell's choreography is more workmanlike than inspired. But some beautiful performances on opening night put the spotlight where it belonged: on the dancers themselves.

Patricia Barker, a PNB principal dancer for nearly 20 years, hints in a program interview that her retirement may be imminent. But she brought an enchanting lightness to the role of Clara, matching her impeccable technique (her remarkably articulate feet look like long exclamation points) with a sweet and slightly wistful girlish quality.

A dancer nearing the end of her career can find much meaning in this role, as Clara prepares to say goodbye to a beloved phase of her life, and Barker's performance conveyed an emotional depth perfectly suiting Clara, about to take her first steps toward adulthood. She may well be visiting this land of make-believe for the last time, and thus wants to devour every moment.

Stanko Milov, tall and imposing, made an elegant Nutcracker Prince. Ariana Lallone brought a sense of mournful abandon to the Peacock, briefly freed from her gilded cage. Emerging from a frothy cloud of whirling pink tutus, Carrie Imler led the Waltz of the Flowers with her customary grace and precision, tossing off razor-sharp fouetté turns with a smiling ease.

And the dozens of perfectly trained children of the cast, all from PNB's school, did their teachers proud, from the poised Laura Anne Wallace as young Clara to a very small girl in a hat in Act I, whose meticulous character work did not go unnoticed.

All this added up to a "Nutcracker" to remember. "Bravo!" shouted the tiny girl behind me, at the end of each dance. Indeed.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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