Angela Sterling's photographs of last year's "Nutcracker" at Pacific Northwest Ballet illustrate a sumptuous new picture book issued for this Christmas by local publisher Sasquatch Books.
Sterling trained as a ballet dancer and reached the rank of soloist at PNB by the time of her retirement in 1997. Since then, she's become a respected ballet photographer, with her work appearing in national dance magazines as well as newspapers.
The new book from Sasquatch features full-page, full-color photos of last year's dress rehearsal of "Nutcracker," as well as a simple text that tells the story of Tchaikovsky's ballet as conceived by choreographer Kent Stowell and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who designed the sets and costumes.
In the book as on the stage, a young girl named Clara is given the gift of a Nutcracker by her mysterious godfather Drosselmeier. On Christmas Eve, the Nutcracker comes to life, battles an army of giant mice and is saved by Clara from the Mouse King. The pair, with Clara mysteriously transformed into an adult princess and the Nutcracker into a prince, sail away to a fairy-tale kingdom ruled by a Pasha with a strong resemblance to Drosselmeier (Drosselmeier and the Pasha are always danced by the same person).
Sterling lives in Amsterdam but continues to visit Seattle on a regular basis to photograph PNB's performances. To avoid the eight-hour time difference and phone tag across a couple of continents, we discussed photographing PNB and the "Nutcracker" by e-mail.
You have photographed seven "Nutcrackers" at PNB (1998-2005), but how many "Nutcrackers" did you dance?
"I was the young Clara in Boston Ballet's 'Nutcracker' in 1978 and did the 'Nutcracker' at PNB every year until I retired. Dancing the PNB 'Nutcrackers' started with the shooting of the movie of 'The Nutcracker' in 1985 (I was a snowflake) and went until 1997. Eight years of Boston Ballet's version as a child, and 12 years of PNB's."
How did you get interested in photography?
"My mother always had a camera with her, and three of my siblings - two brothers and one sister - always had cameras on them. As a child I used to love how photographs made fleeting moments solid for eternity."
As a dancer yourself, what do you like to see in photographs of ballet?
"Obviously I like to see perfect positions, the best moments that a dancer is going for on stage. You work your whole childhood, sacrifice a normal teenage lifestyle to dedicate yourself to this profession, and the last thing you want is to see yourself in the newspaper in this ugly position."
What type of dance photographs do you not like?
"Normal photographers think it might be interesting to have a blurry shot because of motion of a dancer, but that is their view. A dancer very rarely would want a picture that didn't represent the perfection they were striving for [in a position]."
What were some of the challenges of photographing last year's "Nutcracker" for the book?
"There isn't much of a challenge shooting 'Nutcracker' itself since I know the ballet by heart and practically have all the children's roles memorized by sight as well as the roles I danced myself.
"For the book, the challenges were things like having only one dress rehearsal to shoot everything and trying to get closeup shots as well as running into the audience for the wide shots to make for a complete 'picture' of the story.
"I had great help from [PNB's associate director of marketing and communications] Lia Chiarelli on a daily basis with planning, as well as her dad [PNB lighting designer Rico Chiarelli], who talked at length with me about subtle shifts in lighting that I had to prepare for. I couldn't have done it without their encouragement and help about the visuals regarding the story and 'essence' of the ballet."
Did you have any particular moment or mood that you wanted to capture for the book?
"The emotions that Clara has throughout the whole ballet. It's her story. Kent Stowell was always very clear about all the different reactions that she was to have, what she is thinking, how it changes in different scenes. His work with the young Claras is intense. I loved watching him over the years because he was a master at storytelling and knew [that] if you give the children the story really clearly, they will react while dancing and therefore portray the story more sincerely.
Kent was also very clear about the strange relationship between Drosselmeier and [the adult] Clara. That it is very important that you see the adult Clara acting as well. I spoke with both Mara Vinson and Casey Herd, the adult Clara and Nutcracker, to make sure they knew that it was important to get the facial expressions so it would help tell the story."
My favorite "Nutcracker" moment was seeing Kent Stowell dance Drosselmeier during his last season as artistic director at PNB; I love your photo of him swirling his coat around him. What was your favorite "Nutcracker" moment in 2004?
"I would have to agree with you. I watched Kent for years teaching the role to the Drosselmeiers, and I always thought he did it the best. They never went as far as he did - he really knew what the role needed. I feel that the book is extra special for the single reason: Kent is the Drosselmeier."
What are some of your future projects?
"Along with my dedication to create great imagery for my 'family' at PNB, I have regular work with Het Nationale Ballet (Dutch National Ballet) here in Amsterdam and have current and future projects with Royal Ballet of Flanders, Stuttgart Ballet, Boston Ballet and English National Ballet in London.
But I have to say one of the more exciting clients I work with each year is Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, directed by Jean-Christophe Maillot. He has just created a new full-length ballet, "Le Songe" (The Dream), which will première Dec. 27. Being requested by him to do the photography for his new ballet is a real honor. He and his company are astounding and continue to inspire me year after year. Plus spending Christmas and New Year's in Monte Carlo isn't so bad either!"
Rosemary Jones first saw PNB's "Nutcracker" in 1983 and has lost track of how many performances she has seen since.