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Why Shaking Up Seattle's 'Nutcracker' Is So Risky

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker."
Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker."

You take a chance any time you swap out an old favorite for something new.

Make a change during the holiday season and a nonprofit arts group could risk a significant portion of its annual income if tickets don’t sell. But play it safe and there’s the risk of producing stale art.

That was the dilemma facing Pacific Northwest Ballet over its “Nutcracker,” choreographed by Kent Stowell and designed by beloved children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. Since its 1983 premiere, “Nutcracker” has brought in about one-third of the ballet company’s annual ticket sales revenue.

Sendak’s designs appeared on billboards and decorations across the city, and for many people in the Northwest, the show came to define the holiday season.

See Photos: How The New 'Nutcracker' Costumes Were Made

“The Stowell-Sendak “Nutcracker” was beloved by the institution and the community,” PNB Executive Director Ellen Walker says. “And it was very central to our identity as a company.”

So it was a little shocking when PNB announced last year that it would mothball the beloved production.

PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal replaced it with another production of this holiday classic: legendary choreographer George Balanchine’s version, created for his New York City Ballet in 1954.

Walker was PNB’s marketing director when Boal originally broached the idea of swapping one Nutcracker for another. Walker’s task was to try to quantify PNB’s risk if it dropped a sure-fire hit and replaced it with something new to the community.

“I called Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, other ballets who’d either changed Nutcrackers or were contemplating it,” she explains.

Ultimately, PNB’s Board of Directors voted to move ahead with the risky, and very expensive, change.

"George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” (that’s the official title) is performed by ballet companies across the nation; it’s the version of the holiday classic that Boal saw as a young boy, the ballet that inspired him to become a dancer himself.

Like the Stowell/Sendak version, PNB’s new Nutcracker features designs by a beloved children’s author. In this case, that’s Ian Falconer, creator of the “Olivia” books.

And it features Tchaikovsky’s familiar score. The production opens on Friday.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "You can't sit back and continue to do what you've done.", "style": "inset"}]]“Nutcracker” is just one of the big productions that nonprofit arts groups trundle out during the holidays. Not only are shows like “A Christmas Carol” and Handel’s “Messiah” artistic icons, but ticket sales can make up significant portions of these groups’ annual budget.

Kevin Maifeld, director of Seattle University’s Arts Leadership program, says tweaking a holiday classic is a huge risk for a nonprofit.

“People come in the door with certain expectations,” he says, “and you have to land close enough to those expectations that they have a good experience and want to come back next year.”

On the other hand, Maifeld says, many arts groups play it safe; they continue to trot out the tried-and-true production year after year.

He believes publicly funded arts groups have a responsibility to their audiences to reevaluate their relevance on a regular basis.

“You can’t sit back and continue to do what you’ve done,” Maifeld stresses.

From his vantage point, PNB has played all the right cards.

[asset-images[{"caption": "No production of 'Nutcracker' is complete without waltzing snowflakes. The new PNB production features these layered dresses, edged with tiny sequins.", "fid": "120564", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201509/nutcracker2_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery"}]]PNB’s Ellen Walker says as opening night draws closer, the ballet company is increasingly excited about the new production.

Right now, weather is the main worry.

Several years back, PNB was forced to cancel a couple of performances because of heavy snow.

“That was rough,” she acknowledges.

This year, she’s crossing her fingers, and consulting every available weather prognosticator.

“So, the Pacific blob people say no snow,” she laughs. “The Farmer’s Almanac says two storms. We’re just gonna go with the blob!”

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” runs Nov. 27-Dec. 28 at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall.