Kids Explain Why `The Nutcracker' Is Magic

For one month of the year, a good third of the audience attending the Pacific Northwest Ballet can't touch their feet to the floor. The little ones in this crowd can be identified by their nonstop questions and comments, and an occasional need for a restraining hand to keep them from dancing down the aisle or folding up inside the plush seats.

Last week, children of all ages came out for Pacific Northwest Ballet's opening night of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," the story of 12-year-old Clara's holiday odyssey through an Oz-like world of bigger-than-life toys and dancing snowflakes that takes her to a mysterious Eastern palace.

Discussing the ballet's magnificence, the kids aren't yet concerned with what an original "Nutcracker" they've seen. After all, Kent Stowell's production for PNB is the only one in the world to feature set and costume designs by children's writer/illustrator Maurice Sendak.

As 10-year-old Christopher Del Beccaro puts it, the great value of this production is that "there are no boring parts."

The average "Nutcracker" program stereotypically provides scary noise and handsome architecture for the boys, and prettiness and dolls for the girls, and these elements tend to separate like oil and water. But under Sendak's unifying brush, every scene in PNB's version jumbles opulence and danger, noise and whispers, love and bad behavior - and all the scrims, sets and story elements seem to belong to every child.

For Charlie Horton, 7, the greatest moment is not the mouse-and-soldier fight scene, as one would predict. It's the vision of leaping dancers from the Pasha's Kingdom in Act II, a scene Horton aptly renames "the Whirlishing Dervishes."

As kids get older they favor the scenes in which children are featured front and center as actors and dancers. Carolyn Del Beccaro, 13, likes the Act I party scene best, a segment whose emotional tenor is determined by kids. Emily Del Beccaro, 10, likes the toy theater segment from Act II, a scene that features intense dance technique performed by 9- and 10-year-olds.

That both these sections feature outstanding costumes undoubtedly adds to their allure. Sherry Thompson, PNB wardrobe mistress, calls the velveteen dresses and suits that the kids wear for the toy theater section in Act II "some of the prettiest costumes in the ballet."

Charlie Horton's devotion to PNB's "Nutcracker" is so fierce, it supersedes a need to believe that this story of Clara's adventure is true.

"It's all her dream," he says. "I know that for a fact."

Pacific Northwest Ballet presents "The Nutcracker" at the Opera House, shows through Dec. 30 ($8-$56; 292-ARTS).