sat 30/08/2014

Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum | Dance reviews, news & interviews

Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

Delightful dancers deserve a better showcase than this flawed production

Daria Klimentová as Clara and Vadim Muntagirov as Nephew in English National Ballet's production of Nutcracker © Caroline Holden/English National Ballet

This production of Nutcracker, the 10th in English National Ballet's 60-year history, has come in for some stick in the three years since its première. Wayne Eagling, the company’s then director, produced the choreography in rather too much of a hurry, as anyone will remember who watched the third episode of Agony and Ecstasy, the BBC’s 2011 documentary about the company, in which the birth of Nutcracker was definitely filed under agony.

There has been ample time since for polishing, but no amount of polishing can fix structural flaws, and this ballet has a fatal one in the shape of its story treatment. Clara is played by both a little girl and a mature ballerina, and there is both a Nutcracker, and a Nephew who wears the same costume.  Neither doubling of this kind nor the 'Clara is dreaming' explanation for it are uncommon in Nutcracker productions, which have to do something to reconcile the essentially unrelated halves of the ballet's story, but the half-time switch-around here is clunkingly awkward. Despite having escaped in a balloon with Clara at the end of Act I, suggesting he will be her partner in the Kingdom of the Sweets, Junor Souza's Nutcracker is switched for Vadim Muntagirov's Nephew early in Act II through a piece of excessively amateur stagecraft: the two dancers dash in and out from behind the back curtain while fighting the Mouse King (pictured below).  This grotesque but unscary rodent has hitched a ride on the balloon and thus into the second Act through wanton disregard for the music; he capers on like a pantomime villain just as sweet treble voices bring the snow scene to a magical climax.

The principals seemed to be in a different ballet altogether

The visuals aren't good enough to help the clunky storytelling along. Peter Farmer’s rather muddy colour palette could work if lit sympathetically, but David Richardson’s overuse of harsh white, and worse, Eighties nightclub blue lighting, has a vile effect on dresses of avocado, cocoa, and peach. The sets are better, and the forest in which the Waltz of the Flowers and the final pas de deux take place is over the top, swirly, and pussy willow grey. Some coups de théâtre are good, like the ice-skaters and the hot air balloon; others notably less so, like the green LED Christmas tree and the underwhelming cannon. The choreography, while there are individual charming ideas, is repetitive and doesn't always bring out the best moments of Tchaikovsky's wonderful score.

Having said all that, I now want (much like the Nutcracker story) to focus on sweetness and positivity because, despite the bad hand dealt them by this production, the dancers of English National Ballet are really shining at the moment. Yonah Acosta charms with wide eyes and enormous jumps in the Spanish variation, and rocks the best pair of red velvet breeches since Little Lord Fauntleroy. Shiori Kase brings a sorbet-clear and refreshing grace to the short Chinese variation which is particularly welcome after the unspeakably bad orientalism of the slave-whipping Arabian dance. Laurretta Summerscales and Alison McWhinney lead the flowers impeccably (this being only one of several impressive solo moments this year, McWhinney should be in line for a promotion out of the corps de ballet soon). And Ksenia Ovysyanick is terrific as Clara’s older sister Louise, tempering teenage flirtiness with sweetness and depth thanks to her gossamer arms.

The Mouse King and miceDaria Klimentová as Clara and Vadim Muntagirov as Nephew/Nutcracker are in such uplifting, mesmerising accord when dancing together that last night they seemed to be in a different ballet altogether, a beautiful, happy place where bad lighting and bad costumes don’t matter. In that place, the only important story is the one in which two supremely good classical dancers are perfectly paired not only with each other, but with one of the best pas de deux scores Tchaikovsky ever wrote and so transfix their audience with an electric, and joyous grand pas. Klimentová’s combination of technical mastery, ease and delicacy is delicious, while Muntagirov has developed a regally charismatic stage presence to match his prodigious dancing ability. Their joint radiance wrings profundity from both music and choreography.

Klimentová and Muntagirov could probably mint their own gold stars, and so they add one to the production’s tally; another goes to the rest of the company for being troopers. But really, these talented troopers deserve a better parade ground for their compuslory festive drill.

  • See English National Ballet's Nutcracker at the London Coliseum until 5 January.  Other productions are currently being staged by: The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden until January 16; Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome until December 12, and Moscow City Ballet on tour (Cambridge, Northampton, Scunthorpe, Richmond) until March 2.
Overleaf: watch Episode 3 of Agony and Ecstasy: A Year with English National Ballet (2011), which documents the creation of this production of Nutcracker.

Comments

That's something of an

That's something of an improvement on your previous Nutcracker review: Tchaikovsky gets two mentions. Still. the ENB orchestra - we're so lucky to have it - and the conductor don't. Can you imagine an opera review which only mentioned the singers and the sets? This is total work of art, however feeble - please acknowledge. To judge from the dull pictures you chose, ENB also needs a much more imaginative photographer.

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