The Nutcracker

Choreography by David Nixon; music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Northern Ballet
Leeds Grand Theatre

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Rachael Gillespie (Clara) and Ashley Dixon (Nutcracker Prince) Credit: Emma Kauldhar
Mlindi Kulashe (Uncle Drosselmeyer) Credit: Emma Kauldhar
Northern Ballet Credit: Emma Kauldhar

It’s been more than 120 years since The Nutcracker was first staged in St Petersburg and in that time it has become a Christmas staple for millions of people all over the world, as fundamental to the Yuletide period as Bruce Willis tackling terrorists in his trusty white vest or potatoes sizzling in goose fat.

In fact, The Nutcracker is now so familiar to theatre audiences that many choreographers have sought to reinvent the piece by using Tchaikovsky’s score as a backdrop for exploring heavier themes, often along psychological lines. David Nixon’s approach is deliberately traditional, preserving the general narrative of the original even though it relocates the action to Regency England.

Based on E T A Hoffman’s short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the first half of the ballet has the strongest narrative thrust. It’s the night before Christmas and the Edwards family are celebrating with a huge party at their palatial home. Excitement builds with the arrival of Uncle Drosselmeyer (Mlindi Kulashe), who brings with him various unusual toys, including two sets of life-size dancing dolls. He also gives Clara (Rachael Gillespie), his youngest niece, a small wooden Nutcracker doll.

The next morning, Clara wakes to find that her living room has been turned into a magical kingdom, equipped with a fairy-tale castle. Not only that, but her beloved Nutcracker has come to life and grown to man-size proportions. With the help of his toy infantry, the wooden man enters into battle with the sinister Mouse King (Joseph Taylor) and his army of rodents.

With the villain defeated in the first act, the second feels more like a dance showcase. Once Drosselmeyer has transformed the Nutcracker into a handsome prince (Ashley Dixon), he and Clara are transported to a magical garden where they watch a series of performances from a colourful array of performers, including the beguiling Sugar Plum Fairy (Minju Kang) and her dance partner, the Cavalier (Javier Torres).

Despite being an avid theatregoer in my mid-thirties, this is actually the first production of The Nutcracker I have ever seen. I sincerely hope it won’t be the last as I was utterly enthralled throughout the production.

If you are unfamiliar with The Nutcracker, you might be surprised by how much of Tchaikovsky’s score you will recognise. However, even greater than the thrill of identifying music that has been quoted within innumerable films and TV shows is the joy of listening to such a sublime score, particularly when it is performed with the panache of the Northern Ballet Sinfonia. Normally, The Nutcracker is played by a larger ensemble of musicians, but John Longstaff’s orchestrations allow the Sinfonia to achieve a rich, full sound.

Director and choreographer David Nixon has staged The Nutcracker four times and this particular production was first staged in 2007. In other words, this is a tried and tested piece of work, and it is executed with great confidence and precision. The plot-driven first half combines moments of choreographic invention (e.g. the dancing automatons) with clear storytelling. The second half is even more impressive in terms of sheer dance content, as the performers are given the opportunity to demonstrate their talents in a variety of physically demanding routines. In a production of this quality, it’s difficult to name favourites, but I was particularly struck by the Cossacks’ lively high kicks and the gorgeous pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier.

The performers are uniformly excellent, ensuring that every character—no matter matter how small the part—is energetically played. Special praise must go to Rachael Gillespie, who movingly captures the heroine’s sense of wonder and disbelief, and Mlindi Kulashe, who brings a real sense of the magical to the part of Uncle Drosselmeyer.

In terms of visual spectacle, The Nutcracker is an absolute treat. Charles Cusick-Smith’s richly detailed set designs transport the audience to a series of magical worlds. Many of the production’s most striking images, particularly the snow blizzard that marks the end of the first act, will stay with me for years to come.

Northern’s Ballet exquisite staging of The Nutcracker deserves to find the largest audience possible. It truly is a marvellous piece of work.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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