'Tis the season: PNB celebrates its 30th 'Nutcracker'

When approached with the idea, Maurice Sendak wasn't so sure about collaborating with Pacific Northwest Ballet's founding artistic director and choreographer Kent Stowell on a rendition of E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." Now, decades later, the unique production has become a Seattle-area holiday tradition, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Noted for its moving scenery, live orchestra and traditional score by Tchaikovsky, and over 30 performances between November and December, PNB's "Nutcracker" is one of the foremost productions of the beloved holiday classic. But the production as we know it, which features Sendak's signature set design, almost didn't get made.

"I was flattered," said Sendak, who died in May of 2012, in a 1984 interview about the production, "but my reasons for saying no were plentiful. To begin with, who in the world needed another 'Nutcracker'?"

However, Sendak was convinced by Stowell at their first meeting in New York City in 1981, two years before the ballet would debut in Seattle.

"I liked him immediately for not wanting me to do Nutcracker for all the obvious reasons but rather because he wished me to join him in a leap into the unknown," Sendak said at the time.

Then, in 1983, the curtain finally rose.

"We have worked on the concept of this new production for two years," Stowell said at the time of the opening, adding that "seeing our plans become a reality for our company is an incredible accomplishment."

And while the show is a beloved tradition, there is something new about this year's offerings from PNB; in the gift shop this year, audiences will find a new recording of Tchaikovsky's emotive score, performed by PNB's orchestra, which the New York Times called "the finest ballet orchestra in the country" last February.

But much of the performance remains the same as it has been in years past -- a feat of endurance that, 30 years later, artist director Peter Boal still credits to the teamwork of Stowell and Sendak.

"This is also an anniversary year," Boal says in the performance's program notes, adding that "we salute the incredible collaboration of [Stowell and Sendak] in creating their singular version of the E.T.A. Hoffman tale. An atmosphere of childhood wonder, mystery, drama, and danger resolve beautifully for audiences of all ages....There's nothing quite like being as happy as a child."

"Nutcracker" opens November 30 and runs until December 29. More information, including ticketing, can be found at PNB's website.