The Nutcracker

Choreography by Peter Darrell, music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Scottish Ballet
Edinburgh Festival Theatre

(Centre) Chloe Macduff as Clara and First Artist Rimbaud Patron as Party Guest in Peter Darrell's The Nutcracker Credit: Andy Ross
(Centre) Chloe Macduff as Clara in Peter Darrell's The Nutcracker Credit: Andy Ross
Principals Marge Hendrick as Sugar Plum Fairy and Evan Loudon as Nutcracker Prince in Peter Darrell's The Nutcracker. Credit: Andy Ross

It's been a difficult few years for stage, and the ballet world, with the festive season never feeling quite as magical without the whooshing of lithe limbs through the air and thrumming of toes en pointe. So it's with no small measure of pleasure that I can say that Scottish Ballet's The Nutcracker finally returning the company, orchestra and all to the stage is a wonderful and triumphant joy.

It's long been observed that Tchaikovsky's music's sumptuous swells and the ethereally ringing peals of the celesta are much beloved, the ballet itself is a more recent success. Modern audiences have taken to its warm, wintery charms far more than Russian audiences and critics did in December of 1892, shunning the piece for its lack of narrative structure and flagrant, even excessive, stylistic show-boating in the second act. Whether this was due to an over-familiarity with much longer and more complex original story, Nussknacker und Mausekönig, or the different tastes of the times can only be guessed at. But over a century later, it's hard to imagine that this gleeful celebration of dance the world over, and unashamed wistful joy taken in childlike festive spirit, was not as beloved as it is now.

The Scottish Ballet interpretation of the piece winds a spell of festive cheer, beginning with peering through the window into the vibrant and jolly warmth of a Christmas party, as Grace Paulley's Drosselmeyer begins proceedings with a gift of magical generosity to a poor beggar-boy, from which the whole builds into a throng of moving parts as the party guests, serving staff and excited children sweep around and through in choreographed chaos; through until the appearance of Jerome Barnes's Nutcracker Prince, who leads young Clara (Caoimhe Fisher) through a brief war with mischievous giant rats, and an army of tin soldiers. Then onward into the realm of The Sugar Plum Fairy (Sophie Martin), where they dally with The Snow Queen (Constance Devernay) and a host of dancers from across the world, who parade for young Clara until sleep welcomes her home to her parents' loving arms and a well-deserved bed.

It's a beautiful ballet, making the various layers of movement twist and turn around each other throughout the many and various moments of splendour. The company excel themselves with each turn, especially with many of the principals returning to roles they've worked through before. A further mention should also go to Fisher, who, as well as showing accomplished footwork for her years, manages to maintain a realistic sense of awe and wonder throughout the performance, as the many wonders and strange events unfold.

It's also hugely gratifying to see the down-payment made by the appearance of Martin and Barnes in last year's Scottish ballet film, The Secret Theatre. Here we see the pas de deux of the Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy run to its full course, in its many parts, as well as in their individual solo moments throughout the second act. Similarly, Devernay returns to the role of Snow Queen, one that she has all but made her signature at this point in recent years, in this case, however, with less malice and more kindness than in the self-titled incarnation that has previously graced the festive boards.

There needs little said about the orchestra, whose flawless renditions of Tchaikovsky's music, under the conduction of Jean-Claude Picard, threatened to lift the roof off at various points and swept the audience into raptures throughout.

While it is a beloved piece of festive cheer, especially with Darrell and Brotherson's work in choreographing and staging it, along with the current refinements from Christopher Hampson, it's hard not to notice that if there is a flaw in The Nutcracker, it's that the pacing of the ballet has ever been somewhat bizarre, which may indeed be part of its initial critical shunning. The opening party is a mite over-long and cluttered, then the war with the King Rat comes and goes like lightning, while the second act, albeit stunningly beautiful and a genuine cavalcade of athletic and artistic majesty, all feels drawn out, and does lack for any form of narrative.

But taken for what the work is, a celebration of dance, and joy wrapped in the simple joy of a child's Christmas dream, fuelled by cake, presents and excitement, then these minor quibbles can hardly be looked on with any real scorn. This is Christmas magic, the sort that the season has sadly missed. Wrap up warm this Christmas and take the trip out, and may you find your own heart stirred to wonder by The Nutcracker.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan