At 7:43 p.m. on December 28, after a lengthy standing ovation, the curtain went down on the final performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker before its indefinite hiatus. After 32 years, this Nutcracker, designed by Maurice Sendak and choreographed by George Balanchine pupil Kent Stowell, had become a Seattle institution—loved and lampooned like any cultural icon. (One year, The Stranger’s calendar listing for Nutcracker joked that it had been designed by Maurice Sendak and choreographed by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi—even we were surprised by the intensity of the blowback.) Gary Tucker, media relations manager at PNB, says putting this Nutcracker into retirement provoked a mixed response, from “I’m excited to see the next one” to “you’ve ruined Christmas.”

Sponsored
Madeleine Peyroux and Paula Cole bring their iconic albums to the Benaroya Hall stage on October 8!
These sensational singer-songwriters celebrate their hit records, Careless Love and This Fire, at Benaroya Hall!

The mood backstage was surprisingly sentimental after this final-final curtain, even among longtime crew members who’d seen decades of Nutcrackers. Dancers and stagehands talked about kids who’d grown up in Nutcracker—some went on to professional dance careers while others eventually had children who, years later, joined its next generation of performers.

Photographer Malcolm Smith and I lurked around the theater that night and the next day, watching as costumes, props, and sets were hung, dismantled, folded, packed into boxes, and carted off to the vault.

This was the final image, besides the curtain call, audiences saw of this <em>Nutcracker</em> before it was tucked away for the foreseeable future. This is one of the production’s many “drops,” painted fabrics that depict different settings—a Christmas party, a stormy sea, the palace of a “pasha”—and are raised and lowered by multiple teams, some backstage and some 100 feet in the air above them. The ground-floor crew communicates with the upstairs crew via radio, telling them when to pull the ropes and when to add and remove 5 to 30-lb weights to facilitate the process.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • This was the final image, besides the curtain call, audiences saw of this Nutcracker before it was tucked away for the foreseeable future. This is one of the production’s many “drops,” painted fabrics that depict different settings—a Christmas party, a stormy sea, the palace of a “pasha”—and are raised and lowered by multiple teams, some backstage and some 100 feet in the air above them. The ground-floor crew communicates with the upstairs crew via radio, telling them when to pull the ropes and when to add and remove 5 to 30-lb weights to facilitate the process.

Many more photos follow after the jump.

Sendak’s design has a rounded, dusty-pastel, “Oriental” aesthetic. While they were putting the production together, Sendak and Stowell imagined that Dr. Stahlbaum—father of Clara, the ballet’s heroine—had been a diplomat and collected all the exotica we see during the party scene in act one, and which grows to immense proportions during Clara’s hallucinogenic dream in act two. For this production, dancers wear turbans and stereotypical old-timey Chinese silk suits—the
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Sendak’s design has a rounded, dusty-pastel, “Oriental” aesthetic. While they were putting the production together, Sendak and Stowell imagined that Dr. Stahlbaum—father of Clara, the ballet’s heroine—had been a diplomat and collected all the exotica we see during the party scene in act one, and which grows to immense proportions during Clara’s hallucinogenic dream in act two. For this production, dancers wear turbans and stereotypical old-timey Chinese silk suits—the "dervishes" even wear frizzy black wigs and chunky gold chains with flesh-colored shirts. Media relations manager Gary Tucker said PNB has never received serious criticism for these broad-strokes “ethnic” costumes that were designed decades ago. “One time someone complained that we had a dancer in blackface,” he said. “But they were actually just watching a black dancer.”

By the time the curtain fell at 7:43 pm, Rita Brown and the other union dressers were already doing their own quick-stepping backstage, speedily packing costumes into crates. By 8:15, almost all the costumes were put away. By 8:30, everybody was headed home.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • By the time the curtain fell at 7:43 pm, Rita Brown and the other union dressers were already doing their own quick-stepping backstage, speedily packing costumes into crates. By 8:15, almost all the costumes were put away. By 8:30, everybody was headed home.

Some of the dressers said they do an average of seven loads of laundry per show (in rotation—not every costume gets washed every time) and hand-wash between eight and twelve individual costumes. Costumes that are too delicate for the dryer are put in a “dry room” that sucks away the moisture. “You can get old really fast standing in there,” someone said as they passed by. Some costumes are just spritzed with Everclear or high-proof vodka to kill any potentially odiferous bacteria.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Some of the dressers said they do an average of seven loads of laundry per show (in rotation—not every costume gets washed every time) and hand-wash between eight and twelve individual costumes. Costumes that are too delicate for the dryer are put in a “dry room” that sucks away the moisture. “You can get old really fast standing in there,” someone said as they passed by. Some costumes are just spritzed with Everclear or high-proof vodka to kill any potentially odiferous bacteria.

All told, the costumes fit into 16 crates and one drum for tutus. (This <em>Nutcracker</em> was not a tutu-heavy show.) The dressers said they do not use mothballs. The next production—which uses George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography but will be designed by another children’s book author, Ian Falconer of the <em>Olivia</em> series—will be brighter, with a less dusty and dreamy color palette.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • All told, the costumes fit into 16 crates and one drum for tutus. (This Nutcracker was not a tutu-heavy show.) The dressers said they do not use mothballs. The next production—which uses George Balanchine’s 1954 choreography but will be designed by another children’s book author, Ian Falconer of the Olivia series—will be brighter, with a less dusty and dreamy color palette.

As the dressers packed things away, dancers walked by—some barefoot with duct tape wrapped around their toes and various parts of their presumably chafed feet—carrying bottles of champagne and hugging each other. One dresser greeted a young woman by exclaiming: “You survived all this!” The young woman smiled. “I loved it!” she said, then paused. “Almost all of the time.”
  • Malcolm Smith
  • As the dressers packed things away, dancers walked by—some barefoot with duct tape wrapped around their toes and various parts of their presumably chafed feet—carrying bottles of champagne and hugging each other. One dresser greeted a young woman by exclaiming: “You survived all this!” The young woman smiled. “I loved it!” she said, then paused. “Almost all of the time.”

Upstairs, the stagehands were getting a jump on striking tomorrow’s set by rolling up and thunking around heavy cylinders of marley, the layer of rubbery material covering the stage. The floor pattern was designed to be colorfully vague, but is primarily useful for the children so they know where to stand during their parts. “This floor goes into the rehearsal room studio for the kids,” Tucker said—even though this <em>Nutcracker</em> is headed into the vault, the workers at PNB kept referring to it in the present tense.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Upstairs, the stagehands were getting a jump on striking tomorrow’s set by rolling up and thunking around heavy cylinders of marley, the layer of rubbery material covering the stage. The floor pattern was designed to be colorfully vague, but is primarily useful for the children so they know where to stand during their parts. “This floor goes into the rehearsal room studio for the kids,” Tucker said—even though this Nutcracker is headed into the vault, the workers at PNB kept referring to it in the present tense.

Every effect in this <em>Nutcracker</em>—including the boat ride across the stormy ocean and the dumping of the snow—is hand-manipulated. The upcoming Balanchine production will have more automated elements. Desta Olds, whose father is a longtime stagehand (pictured above), had been shadowing one of the assistant stage managers for this show. She said she was surprised by the backstage action and details she’d never seen from the audience, like set pieces that had been decorated from behind with tinsel and pieces of tape autographed by the child dancers. She also learned that when Clara and the Prince take their famous boat ride, children will wave at them from backstage, trying to get them to return the gesture. “If they’re nice, they’ll wave back,” Olds said. “But they’re trying to <em>act</em> out there.”
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Every effect in this Nutcracker—including the boat ride across the stormy ocean and the dumping of the snow—is hand-manipulated. The upcoming Balanchine production will have more automated elements. Desta Olds, whose father is a longtime stagehand (pictured above), had been shadowing one of the assistant stage managers for this show. She said she was surprised by the backstage action and details she’d never seen from the audience, like set pieces that had been decorated from behind with tinsel and pieces of tape autographed by the child dancers. She also learned that when Clara and the Prince take their famous boat ride, children will wave at them from backstage, trying to get them to return the gesture. “If they’re nice, they’ll wave back,” Olds said. “But they’re trying to act out there.”

Stagehands dismantle one of two clocks—a small one and a large one—that appear in the show. Maurice Sendak had designed the production from his house, alongside visiting PNB artists, and the set was built over three months in seven different cities. Tucker said that when Sendak came out to see the first production being assembled, he saw the small clock and said: “Jesus, that’s huge! Where’s the small clock?” Randall G. “Rico” Chiarelli, PNB’s resident lighting designer, smiled and said: “That <em>is</em> the small clock.”
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Stagehands dismantle one of two clocks—a small one and a large one—that appear in the show. Maurice Sendak had designed the production from his house, alongside visiting PNB artists, and the set was built over three months in seven different cities. Tucker said that when Sendak came out to see the first production being assembled, he saw the small clock and said: “Jesus, that’s huge! Where’s the small clock?” Randall G. “Rico” Chiarelli, PNB’s resident lighting designer, smiled and said: “That is the small clock.”

Tucker said PNB representatives would call Sendak before each opening night to say they were thinking of him. As the years went by, Sendak took to replying: “You’re still <em>doing</em> that damn thing?”
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Tucker said PNB representatives would call Sendak before each opening night to say they were thinking of him. As the years went by, Sendak took to replying: “You’re still doing that damn thing?”

The next morning, as stagehands rolled, tipped, and dismantled set pieces, one of them held up some pieces of wood and asked, “what do we do with all this?” Another grinned: “Make a bundle and use ‘em for kindling.”
  • Malcolm Smith
  • The next morning, as stagehands rolled, tipped, and dismantled set pieces, one of them held up some pieces of wood and asked, “what do we do with all this?” Another grinned: “Make a bundle and use ‘em for kindling.”

123.jpg
  • Malcolm Smith

Flymen spent the day pulling on ropes at the stage-right edge of the room, raising and lowering the pipes that held drops and lighting instruments. Between raisings and lowerings, you could hear heavy clunks from high above as stagehands overhead removed metal weights to assist the flymen below. Stagehands swapped stories about times when weights had fallen from high above—“a 30-lb weight at 90 feet is just a missile,” one of them said—and smashed into concrete floors below, leaving huge craters. Nobody in any of these stories was hurt. At the far left side of the photo above, near the ropes, you can see an oblong piece of wood painted with the words “CHATTY’S TONGUE DEPRESSOR.” This was made for one loquacious stagehand, nicknamed “Chatty,” who everybody thought talked too much.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Flymen spent the day pulling on ropes at the stage-right edge of the room, raising and lowering the pipes that held drops and lighting instruments. Between raisings and lowerings, you could hear heavy clunks from high above as stagehands overhead removed metal weights to assist the flymen below. Stagehands swapped stories about times when weights had fallen from high above—“a 30-lb weight at 90 feet is just a missile,” one of them said—and smashed into concrete floors below, leaving huge craters. Nobody in any of these stories was hurt. At the far left side of the photo above, near the ropes, you can see an oblong piece of wood painted with the words “CHATTY’S TONGUE DEPRESSOR.” This was made for one loquacious stagehand, nicknamed “Chatty,” who everybody thought talked too much.

Around the time that the crew began to dismantle the Nutcracker’s face, a spotlight operator and another stagehand talked about people’s various levels of sentimentality—in general, it seemed to range from medium to high—and how some of the union members in the room weren’t even born when their colleagues worked the inaugural production. The spotlight operator also said that every year, some dancers complain that his lights, which shine in their eyes, are getting brighter. “‘No,’ I tell them. ‘You’re just getting older!’”
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Around the time that the crew began to dismantle the Nutcracker’s face, a spotlight operator and another stagehand talked about people’s various levels of sentimentality—in general, it seemed to range from medium to high—and how some of the union members in the room weren’t even born when their colleagues worked the inaugural production. The spotlight operator also said that every year, some dancers complain that his lights, which shine in their eyes, are getting brighter. “‘No,’ I tell them. ‘You’re just getting older!’”

The drops were lifted a few feet off the ground, pulled upstage from the bottom, and slowly lowered so they eventually lay flat on the stage where they could be dismantled. Then the pieces were carted off to trucks waiting at the loading bay on far stage left.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • The drops were lifted a few feet off the ground, pulled upstage from the bottom, and slowly lowered so they eventually lay flat on the stage where they could be dismantled. Then the pieces were carted off to trucks waiting at the loading bay on far stage left.

Support The Stranger

As one pipe was being lifted, it clanked against a lighting instrument high above. “That,” one of the flymen said to nobody in particular, “is music.”
  • Malcolm Smith
  • As one pipe was being lifted, it clanked against a lighting instrument high above. “That,” one of the flymen said to nobody in particular, “is music.”

The specks of white on the floor are chemically fireproofed paper snowflakes—and they don’t taste very good. (I tried.) Every year, the final performance gets an extra dose of snow as the crew dumps all the leftovers onto the stage. Dancers caught in particularly large flurries hurry offstage, spitting out little clouds of the stuff. Earlier in the day, I saw a white paper cup attached to one of the pipes. Nobody seemed to know what it was for—so you can see it in the dark from below? To keep something from catching on something else?—until one of the senior stage crew heard the question and laughed. “That was a gag,” he said. “For dumping snow on somebody”—presumably a backstage colleague.
  • Malcolm Smith
  • The specks of white on the floor are chemically fireproofed paper snowflakes—and they don’t taste very good. (I tried.) Every year, the final performance gets an extra dose of snow as the crew dumps all the leftovers onto the stage. Dancers caught in particularly large flurries hurry offstage, spitting out little clouds of the stuff. Earlier in the day, I saw a white paper cup attached to one of the pipes. Nobody seemed to know what it was for—so you can see it in the dark from below? To keep something from catching on something else?—until one of the senior stage crew heard the question and laughed. “That was a gag,” he said. “For dumping snow on somebody”—presumably a backstage colleague.

Throughout the strike, stagehands speculated about when the Sendak/Stowell <em>Nutcracker</em> would return. They all agreed it wouldn’t take long. “Retiring this is like Cher retiring,” one said. “How many ‘farewell’ Cher tours have you worked?” another asked him. The answer: three. “I’ve worked four,” the second man said. “I predict they’ll open their new <em>Nutcracker</em>, run it three or four years until it pays for itself, then bring this one back,” a third volunteered. “You can’t get rid of tradition.”
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Throughout the strike, stagehands speculated about when the Sendak/Stowell Nutcracker would return. They all agreed it wouldn’t take long. “Retiring this is like Cher retiring,” one said. “How many ‘farewell’ Cher tours have you worked?” another asked him. The answer: three. “I’ve worked four,” the second man said. “I predict they’ll open their new Nutcracker, run it three or four years until it pays for itself, then bring this one back,” a third volunteered. “You can’t get rid of tradition.”

Sponsored
DocFest Kicks Off The Return of SIFF Cinema | Sep 30-Oct 7
A celebration of all films documentary—with in person and virtual screenings, plus filmmaker Q&As.