The Nutcracker, Royal Ballet | Dance reviews, news & interviews
The Nutcracker, Royal Ballet
There's snap in the Christmas cracker yet
When dealing with the big beasts of the classical repertoire, the Royal Ballet has a history of both playing it straight and playing it very, very well. Peter Wright’s venerable production of The Nutcracker is a case in point: although sticking close to the original scenario and choreography, Wright (along with designer Julia Trevelyan Oman) created in 1986 a show that feels ever-fresh in 2013. Full of visual delight, wonderful dancing, and festive cheer, this Nutcracker also feels genuine, as if the people behind it continue to feel the magic themselves.
In his story treatment, Wright eschews any Freudian flights of fancy and gives the original scenario one simple but effective twist: making Drosselmeyer, gifter of the Nutcracker doll, into an urbane, talented magician who sets up the whole Clara/Nutcracker encounter because his beloved nephew has been imprisoned in the wooden toy. This allows Gary Avis (pictured below) to sweep magnificently around the stage all evening, organising the action and providing an important element of continuity across the potentially profound disjuncture between the two Acts, but more importantly, it makes the potentially creepy Drosselmeyer into a sympathetic character. In fact, one of the most touching moments of the whole ballet is when the powerful conjuror tenderly ties a scarf around the neck of a doll.
Avis, an experienced character dancer, is a known quantity, but the fine dancing of Francesca Hayward as Clara (a last-minute substitution for Emma Maguire) came as a delightful surprise. Very quick on her feet, she jumps like she’s just been popped from a champagne bottle, floating on fizz. Evidently more than just a soubrette, however, she combines petit allegro flair with musicality and gorgeously airy leg extension, although sadly her port de bras is a shade too strong and mechanical as yet (she's young; let's hope it mellows). Hayward gives us a self-possessed, even brave Clara, who is at her best when dancing with the Nutcracker/Nephew, Alexander Campbell, another sparky dancer who has joyfully effortless elevation in his jumps. Hayward and Campbell’s bouncy pairing works because, even if they occasionally look more like two twenty-somethings having a lark (i.e. themselves) than children, their delight in the fantasy land that has been conjured up for them never seems to waver.
The Sugar Plum Fairy, Laura Morera (pictured below), is a very different dancer to Hayward. Significantly older as well as more senior, Morera has a short, powerful build that harks back to the aesthetic of mid-twentieth century British ballet (think Alicia Markova) and contrasts sharply with the slender, leggy look of most contemporary ballet school graduates. Dancing the fantastic final pas de deux in the grand classical style, Morera uses her superbly expressive arms, hands and head to show that tiny movements of the wrist or neck can dominate the stage as completely as any number of “six o’clock” arabesques.
Oman’s sets and costumes are traditional without being staid. A German Biedermeier drawing room at Christmas is faithfully created with muted greens, browns and fawns, a colour palette against which Drosselmeyer and his assistant appear almost luridly different in violet, carmine and cerulean (perhaps one of his amazing feats was to invent chemical dyes?) The magic tricks he performs for the children are lovingly staged and genuinely delightful: although I was not, like the little girl behind me, gasping out loud when Drosselmeyer conjured up dolls from empty walls or made the Christmas tree grow to truly outlandish proportions, I thought her response entirely appropriate. A production this carefully, charmingly, and devotedly magicked up deserves a little open-mouthed admiration.
- Versions of The Nutcracker are showing up and down the country this season. See it with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden until January 16, English National Ballet at the London Coliseum until January 5, Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome until December 12, or Moscow City Ballet on tour (Cambridge, Northampton, Scunthorpe, Richmond) until March 2.
- This Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker is being broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 12 December as part of the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season