“The Nutcracker” at PNB is a chance for representation and community | Popgen Tech


By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian weekly

Zeheng Huang (standing left) (Photo by Angela Sterling)

When Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) first came to his school when he was in third grade, Zeheng Huang didn’t know what kind of dance they did.

“He was thinking it was hip hop dancing,” said his mother, Xiaolan Chen. “I didn’t even know what ballet was,” said Zeheng. Now, he has danced in PNB’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” four times, and in this year’s holiday run, from November 25 to December 27, he plays, for the second time once, the very visible role of the prince.

PNB visited Zeheng’s school as part of Dance Chance, their program to improve equity in dance by recruiting Seattle Public Schools students.

“They came to our school to select a few students who were flexible and had a good talent for ballet and I was one of those two students,” Zeheng recalled. “Splits are pretty easy for me… I have my mother’s genes.”

Since coming to the United States from southern China in 2002, proud mother Xiaolan has stayed at home to care for her three children, but it wasn’t always that way. From a young age, she loved dancing.

Zeheng Huang (center) on stage as the prince in The Nutcracker. (Photo by Angela Sterling)

“I liked almost all the dances. I just wanted to dance and dance.” While in China, she played the violin, and graduated from art school as an interior designer. She was also chosen to attend a dance school, but since she was already in college, and felt at a disadvantage that she had not been trained since childhood, Xiaolan passed on this offer. Now, she helps her son and the other PNB school dancers prepare behind the scenes, including costumes and makeup.

While his mother was familiar with “The Nutcracker” because of her interests growing up, Zeheng had no idea what it was until Dance Chance provided him with two tickets to attend a show.

“I never thought I would be in it, but I saw it and I really liked it,” he said. 13-year-old Zeheng, who was born in the United States, currently attends Denny International Middle School and has reached Level VI at the PNB school. His enthusiasm for ballet grew, exponentially over the years.

“I started to really enjoy ballet. I love all the movements and music (especially live music).”

PNB’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” is a winter holiday staple. The story follows Clara, who receives a nutcracker as a gift during a Christmas party. Later Clara falls asleep and dreams that the nutcracker has come to life and that she visits a winter wonderland where snowflakes and sugar plums dance to Tchaikovsky’s music. In the first year he participated, in 2018, Zeheng, who was 9 years old at the time, played a child at the Christmas party. In 2019, he had attended the party again and also a mouse—one of the minions of the mouse king, who comes to life in Clara’s dream as a kind of personification of her narrow brother; and against the nutcracker (who is also the prince) he defends Clara.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, there was no “Nutcracker” in 2020, but last year, in 2021, Zeheng made his debut as the prince, an important role played by one of the four ‘ solos in the show. “I’m kind of three roles in one,” Zeheng explained enthusiastically to the Weekly. “There are three main scenes—the party scene, the battle scene, and Act Two.” In the party scene this year, Zeheng plays the nephew and is “just kind of in there, not doing much”, but in the battle scene, he steals the show as the nutcracker who saves Clara.

Zeheng Huang practices at home during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Xiaolan Chen)

“I like the battle scene where I get the sword and the head,” Zeheng said, adding that the sword is quite heavy. When he leads his soldiers into battle, he gets to “jump over the mouse king” and win the battle.

“In the Second Act, I am the prince with my Clara, who is the little princess. I do my solo which is the pantomime… That’s my big part, then I just watch.” Zeheng enjoys the performances of the other dancers. In general, he shared that “my favorite thing is probably the community backstage because everyone is really nice and supportive.” The Weekly spoke to Zeheng and his mother the morning after their dress rehearsal for this year’s show. “I enjoyed the whole night,” Xiaolan said. “I was so happy that after we got home… I couldn’t sleep, I just think about every moment.”

“The Nutcracker” is a Christmas tradition in the West, but many people do not become familiar with it, apart from the music heard during Christmas shopping, unless, like Xiaolan and Zeheng, they have some interest in dancing. . The Weekly asked dancers of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage at PNB to reflect on their experience with “The Nutcracker.”

Soloist Leah Terada said, “The first production of ‘The Nutcracker’ I saw was ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’ in 2010, staged by the New York City Ballet…I remember the sets in the second act looking like doilies who decorate the stage, and make the dancers the sweets of the land. Even from behind the scenes, the whole production felt energetic, opulent and traditional.”

Cors de ballet dancer Kuu Sakuragi told the Weekly, “I grew up dancing Kent Stowell’s ‘Nutcracker’ as a level III student at PNB School. I love his version of ‘The Nutcracker’… because I got to dance as a toy theater kid. Dancing that role made me realize how much fun it is to perform for an audience.”

“When I was 8 years old, ‘The Nutcracker’ was the first time I did ballet on stage,” recalled Melisa Guilliams, corps de ballet dancer. “I’ve always loved music and movement, but I’ve learned to love sharing it with people too.”

PNB soloist Christian Poppe said, “’The Nutcracker’ was always present throughout my childhood, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play many different parts as I grew up. I have many fond memories of learning various tricks and jumps.” Similar to Zeheng, many of Poppe’s first solo opportunities were during “The Nutcracker.”

Xiaolan expressed that she likes “almost all the show, the dance, and the costumes.” The Weekly asked Zeheng if he ever gets nervous on stage. “Sometimes I do, but after last year, I’m very used to it.”

Visit pnb.org/nutcracker for more information on seeing Zeheng and the other PNB dancers in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.”

Kai can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.


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