The Nutcracker

Birmingham Royal Ballet
Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall is a beast of a space to fill and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s rendition of The Nutcracker works best when the stage is brimming with fabulous dancing. It’s a splendid production, providing show-stopping spectacle in ballet technique, music and shimmering light displays linking both the action onstage to a cavernous space through holograms and film projections.

The first act is magical, apart from a rather jolting recorded voiceover from Simon Callow setting the scene, not needed as the story has been simplified and choreography superbly executed, so it’s easy to follow, even for a younger audience. Something about an audio transition from a soundless art form breaks away from the momentary elegance and beauty of such classical repertoire. Luckily, though, this only happens once in the first and second act.

The production from David Bintley with Peter Wright’s choreography and John Macfarlane’s wonderful costumes cleverly magnifies the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall’s interior for the opening party scene. Deep crimson swishing skirts and gold-flecked light created by laser technology builds a believable background with no set to speak of apart from the mirrored backdrop that reflects right back into the audience, bathing us in warmth, only to be splintered by glorious fake snow that falls upon both dancers and audience.

The party scene feels like a familiar family moment imbued with multigenerational spirit as the children are impressively in step and in perfect time with the music, while costumes are gloriously frothy and choreography interesting, with little clusters forming and breaking up around the stage. It’s also heartening to see children as mini rats in the battle scenes, lending a playful element to the fights and less daunting to watch for a younger audience.

It takes the big numbers though, such as the snowflake waltz, to experience this production in its fully indulgent Christmassy spirit. Highlights include a beautiful transition scene into the land of sweets where Clara, danced with the buttery lightness of Beatrice Parma, is physically lifted by a cluster of corps snowflakes and is moved in waves as if flying along towards a magic land. This is simply beautiful to watch and brilliantly effective, liberated by lack of sets to focus instead on pure movement as powerful language in itself.

While dance of the snowflakes is clean and technically assured, it’s equally pleasurable to see four male snowflakes in amongst the throng who display inspiring energetic technique showing off fiery jetés with impressive elevation, circling around their dainty counterparts.

As the heroine, Clara, Parma is perfectly cast with her tiny frame magnified up against the looming Tom Rogers as Drosselmeyer, who also cuts a cape swirling, dashing, if not slightly menacing figure. What’s wonderful about Parma’s performance is to witness her subtle transformation from bright-eyed, child-like, full of naïve curiosity to something more knowing as she enters into Drosselmeyer's trance and onward journey. Palma displays admirably tight technique with elegant footwork and beautiful elevation as she jetés from childhood into teenage love.

In the second act, dancers are depicted as Drosselmeyer’s dolls. Céline Gittens creates a memorable Sugar Plum Fairy with astonishing exacting lines and execution of movement, she radiates and seduces, smiling brightly but never saccharine, while Yijung Zhang's neat and tidy Snow Fairy feels dainty and minuscule up against the gestural overload in some of the other bigger, brasher sequences that make up the land of sweets or, in this case, dolls.

As the snow falls overhead and Tchaikovsky’s impossibly romantic music ripples across the vast space from up on high (the orchestra is elevated above the stage as if coming from the heavens), I am once more swept away by the charms of this ballet that, over time, becomes an increasingly hard nut to crack in terms of production values and competition. Tonight, however, it’s hard to imagine any less magical way to spend the penultimate night of the year than watching this Nutcracker.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi

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