Casting Inspires Latest `Nutcracker'

Ballet review Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker," through Dec. 28 at the Opera House. 292-ARTS.

It was an opening night of jitters, bumps, and ecstatic travels - in other words, a true holiday festivity. At the Friday performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker" (now in its 12th year), the Mouse King wobbled and the grand pas de deux was marred by missteps. Yet though some details were shaky, thanks to the best casting in years, this season's "Nutcracker" is a fresh enchantment.

It helps that PNB's version of the E.T.A. Hoffman/P.I. Tchaikovsky classic is such a sure product - predominantly sweet and traditional, with a sourpuss twist. Kent Stowell's multifaceted childhood dancing dream takes place inside scrim upon scrim of wicked Maurice Sendak illustration: a border of bulging mice ring a portrait of spindly Godfather Drosselmeier, which in turn gives way to huge snapping teeth that reveal the young sleeping Clara. Let the wild rumpus begin!

Where Stowell and Sendak dicker with tradition, setting Act II in a Pasha's Oriental Kingdom rather than the Land of Sweets, they never forget audience expectation. Besides introducing new characters like the squat, Sendakian tiger and the snooty Peacock, they retain the essence of some classic characters they've cut.

Yet even a design as opulent as this can look worn after 12 years, especially with nervous children knocking against it. But all is renewed when the dancing begins. On Friday, when the young Clara (Alexa McNae) began cavorting in her nightgown, the high wattage of McNae's dancing fully brightened Stowell's skillful patterning of courtly social dance with teasing sibling drama. Young dancers usually can't convey languor, yet McNae has a dreaminess adults would kill for. Though brother Fritz (Reed Hague) isn't as deliciously mean as in previous years, McNae has abundant poise, energy, and performance smarts (she moved deftly past one large flub).

McNae's so good, you almost don't want to trade her for an adult company member when Clara ages. Yet thanks to casting, you don't entirely have to. Linnette Hitchen, as the adult Clara, is as bright-eyed and bright-toed as an exuberant child. She's also so precise and perfectly groomed that when she hops about en pointe she really is the twirling ballerina of a childhood jewel box. Hitchen's is the first portrayal I've seen to be doll-like enough to illuminate the subtle moment in Stowell's choreography when Clara mimics the beckoning gesture of Drosselmeier's Ballerina Doll (Lisa Apple).

Yet Hitchen needs to expand in the pas de deux. Right now, she's too small and cuddly; to satisfy the drama, she must become woman, and roar. With Ross Yearsley as the Prince, the big romantic union is not a total wash, however, for Yearsley is steady and graceful.

The inspired casting goes on. In recent years, the Peacock has been played sexily, like a beautiful woman. This year, with Melanie Skinner's rubbery double-jointed body flicking about unpredictably, the Peacock has been restored to pure, dazzling bird. Anne Derieux, in the Waltz of the Flowers, evokes the technical sophistication of former PNB star Colleen Neary, but warmer. She makes one wish the snow scene contained a lead principal so she might have been featured more.

Also too fleeting are performances by Manard Stewart in Commedia, Ariana Lallone in the Moors, and the brilliant leaping trio of Seth Belliston, Paul Gibson, and Timothy Lynch as the Dervishes.