Score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, story by Marius Petipa
Raymond Gubbay and Varna International Ballet
The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
The Nutcracker serves the same purpose as pantomimes—a seasonal entertainment to attract audiences over the festive period. The plot of the ballet is so slender as to be negligible; it is simply an excuse to celebrate the art of dance.
Toymaker Drosselmeyer (Pierre Gaston) entertains and gives presents to children at a party organised by the Stahlbaum family at which daughter Marie (Peridta Lancaster) receives a nutcracker doll with a disquieting smile. But Drosselmeyer is a magician concealing his talents behind party tricks and has offended the Queen of Mice (Federico Farina) who has turned his son into a doll until such time as someone can defeat her by force of arms.
At midnight, the doll transforms into Prince Nutcracker (Vittorico Scolè) who, together with Marie, overcomes the wicked Queen. The residents of the enchanted kingdom invite the couple to celebrate their victory by watching, and taking part in, a series of dances.
The Bridgewater Hall offers superb acoustics but lacks an orchestra pit. The musicians are, therefore, situated on the floor of the stalls which limits sightlines to the extent the first couple of rows are left vacant.
As the name suggests, the Varna International Ballet has members from a range of countries, including a graduate from Manchester’s Northern Ballet School. The Nutcracker, offering dances from Spain, Arabia, China, Russia and France, is, therefore, something of a mission statement for the company. Members of the company are young enough to be credible as the squabbling children in the opening act and their enthusiasm creates a joyful party mood as the dances are performed.
This is a back-to-basics production concentrating on the quality of the dancing. There is no set—Asya Stoimenova creates a sense of place with projections of Christmas trees, snow-filled woods and elaborate palaces onto a rear screen. Magical transformations are achieved not by slick special effects but by dancers hiding behind, and emerging from, cloaks.
The costumes from Dmitrii Tcherbadzhi are bright to the point of being garish and somewhat eccentric. The king and queen of the enchanted kingdom seem to be wearing chandeliers rather than crowns and the headgear on their courtiers looks like a mutant version of Ladies’ Day at Ascot. The low-key special effects—Drosselmeyer’s illusions / conjurations are more carnival sideshow than slick or spectacular—create a charming, understated atmosphere of an enchanted kingdom with a limited budget. It seems entirely appropriate for Pierre Gaston to play Mother Ginger as a full-on pantomime Dame.
The main strength of Varna International Ballet is simply the quality of the dancing. As the dancers are at the start if their careers, it is feasible to employ up to 40 of them so that while the solos and duets are impressive, it is the sheer scale of the large-cast performances which steal the show. The dance of the snowflakes, with 20 dancers swirling around the stage, brings the first act to a stunning close.
The vivid and clear presentation by Varna International Ballet makes The Nutcracker particularly suitable for young audiences seeing their first ballet.
Reviewer: David Cunningham