The holiday magic makers

Dec 20, 2010

There's about 180 roles in Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker. There’s also some engaging props like a Christmas tree that grows right before your eyes, and one enormous rat with a twitching tale.

But the snow scene – the first time Clara dances with her Nutcracker-turned Prince is the sight to behold.

The couple dance in the moonlight, surrounded by ballerina snowflakes dressed in pale blue skirts. A dusting of snow falls throughout the scene.

PNB dancer Jessika Anspach is a veteran snowflake. She’s performed about 300 Nutcrackers over the past 7 years.

But it’s always thrilling to be on stage. "It is an absolute dream," Anspach says. "I remember being a little girl and sitting in the audience and watching the snow scene."

The dancing, which looks easy, is of course not. The part that’s especially grueling in this “Snow” scene is the role known as “The Flake."

"It’s just like OK, don’t stop. Just keep going. Keep running. Go go go! And the music starts to really picks up. And it’s supposed to be like a snowstorm.

Everybody’s dancing and moving and really swooshing their tulle skirts," she says.

Some 40 pounds of off-white confetti gets dusted onto the dancers during this 7 minute long scene. Snow that’s actually crunchy-sounding if you get a chance to grab a handful of it.  

Backstage, in an act of precise choreography, a crew of “flymen” use weighted pulleys to hoist sets and shake out the snow from large canvas bags.

"It’s all part of the magic of the theater," says Al Hiske. He stands 6'5." He’s worked more Nutcrackers than he can count. He knows the music by heart. But he’s never seen the ballet from a seat out front.

"So when you’re doing your job, do you picture the wide-eyes, the feelings, the emotion that’s being created out in the audience?" he's asked.

"Oh yeah, definitely," he replies. "We encourage that, with everybody who's working here, to feel it."

To feel as if they and the dancers are creating something enchanting.

The snow scene looks like you're staring at a giant snow globe.

"It’s beautiful,"Hiske says, looking out from backstage at the snow falling on the dancers on stage.


"A Christmas Carol" at ACT

From PNB’s stage at the Seattle Center to the ACT Theatre in downtown Seattle, where an an entirely different kind of illusion – and transformation – is taking place.

"Ebenezer!" a voice roars.

"Who are you?"

"Ask me who I was?"

"You don't believe me Ebenezer!"

"I don't!"

Crotchety and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is being visited by the ghost of Marley, his former business partner. And three other spirits haunt Scrooge on this Christmas eve.

"But tell me why do you Spirit walk the earth like this and why do you come tonight?"

ACT's "A Christmas Carol" takes place in a theater that’s round, which means the audience surrounds the stage and sees everything: a streetlight descending from the ceiling; a ghost rising from a trap door.

Actor Sean G. Griffin has a beaky, ruddy face and a pair of mutton chops.  He’s 68 years old and he’s one of two Scrooges this season. His earliest memories of “A Christmas Carol,” when he was a child in Ireland, were anything but spooky.

“I always remember how wonderful and sparkling and bright and cheery," he says about the joy of the party scene at the end of the play.

Charles Dickens wanted his story to make us take a hard look at ourselves in order to live happier, fuller lives.

Kurt Beattie is the theater’s artistic director. 

"It’s a profound human story about the human love and possibility and suffering,"  Beattie says.

Griffin agrees: "Everything that Kurt says is correct and just to add to that, in regards to the magical aspect, I think the magic comes through Marley himself coming back to tell Scrooge that he will end up like him if he doesn’t change his ways. And then the three spirits, the past, the present, and the future, they are so magical in what they show to Scrooge. It’s magic of the spirits."

But the play, like the ballet, also lifts our spirits. 

It takes a bunch of people to put on both productions every winter. And it takes us – the audience – to let their holiday magic really come alive.