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The Nutcracker

Choreography by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, music by Tchaikovsky
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
(2011)

The Nutcracker, ROH, Johan Persson

A traditional Christmas treat that brings pleasure to many is sweeping our capital, nay sweeping Britain—three Nutcrackers in London alone, soon to be four when Birmingham Royal Ballet brings its version to O2. How many Nutcrackers does it take to crack a Christmas nut?

If not for Tchaikovsky’s music, Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs, the Royal Ballet’s superbly trained dancers and sentimental Christmas custom, this 1984 traditional version by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa’s assistant at St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet, might be considered as much a bland confectionary hybrid as when first performed in 1892 to inauspicious reviews—from an original scenario by Petipa after ETA Hoffman’s 1816 Nussknacker und Mausekönig via Alexandre Dumas père’s simplified adaptation The Nutcracker of Nuremberg… It all hangs on the energy of the performances to bring new life to the old.

Diaghilev famously dismissed it as ‘no more than a ballet performed by a hundred children’. But that is what this two-act enduring if anodyne ballet is: a ballet fit for a family audience, the first half more mime than dance for the children, many probably at their first ballet, the second of dance in the fantasy Kingdom of Sweets for the balletomanes.

A bustling Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house full of children, extended family and friends, a Dickensian vision of a wealthy home, a nineteenth century Nuremburg burgher’s home, which Julia Trevelyan Oman has filled with loving clutter, gifts under richly bedecked tree, doll’s house, soldier’s fort, and grandfather’s bath chair, which grow to giant size.

Three generations dancing together, girls in pretty frocks, boys in smart suits. Oh, to be a new pupil at White Lodge and to get one’s first chance to take part in this magical show with trap doors, transformation, mice in battle with toy soldiers, and a sprinkling of glitter, to scramble for sweets thrown by the solemn St Nicholas. All very well behaved, of course.

Drosselmeyer, clockmaker and inventor but also Clara’s godfather, is seen in his modest workshop home, preparing special treats for the Stahlbaum household and worrying about his bewitched nephew Hans-Peter trapped in the Nutcracker’s wooden body.

Then he is amongst them, a larger than life figure, shaking magic dust from his hat, performing magic tricks—making marionettes dance, a boy fly and time stand still. Gary Avis, splendid character actor/dancer towering over them all, is made for the role. Sweeping cloak, grand gestures, but reassuringly warm.

Clara (first artist Elizabeth Harrod) breaks the Nutcracker spell, lays out the Mouse King by cracking him over the head with her shoe, and as a reward is taken by the Christmas tree angel, now full size, in an ornate sleigh to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom where the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince lead the dance.

Waltzes, grand pas, fouettés, pirouettes, all the artillery of the Imperial Classical Ballet executed with panache. From cosy domesticity to a swirling dreamland where wishes come true and dancers from Spain, China, Russia, Arabia and the natural world show off their special moves in exotic divertissements.

A rite of passage for Clara which she barely remembers the next day. But she has had a glimmer of its possibilities. Romance with a capital R, evil conquered, love and virtue triumphant. Christmas card sets, Burne-Jones angels, more fairytale escapism than Hoffmanesque supernatural, even with a dose of dry ice.

Marianela Nuñez, a charismatic Sugar Plum Fairy, radiant, generous, lights up the second act, eyes and smile reflecting its white spun sugar set. Nehemiah Kish, debuting as her Prince, tall, elegantly long-legged, partners gracefully, landing with a whisper, soft and gentle. Great pas de deux and solos, the drama of Tchaikovsky’s music spelt out to the full.

Laura Morera sparkles as the Rose Fairy, fast and precise, her escorts, Alexander Campbell, Bennet Gartside, Valeri Hristov and Johannes Stepanek, in excellent batterie. Valentino Zucchetti (Clara’s partner), and Paul Kay (Hans-Peter and the Nutcracker) also deserve a mention. Though the corps did look a bit tired on Monday night—after the two Saturday first day shows no doubt.

In rep till 18th January 2012

Reviewer: Vera Liber