sun 14/07/2024

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

The Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

The Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

A traditional 19th-century staging gets the blues with basement nightclub lighting

Daria Klimentova as Clara: when she melts into Nutcracker Vadim Muntagirov's hands, all seems right with the worldAll images Annabel Moeller/ENB

I don't want to get the blues at The Nutcracker of all ballets. It should be all snow and Christmas, flowers and presents, firelight, moonlight, candlelight and unearthly brilliance.

What with the lush magic of the Birmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker and the solemn rapture of the Royal Ballet one, English National Ballet have always had a daunting task to be both different enough and distinguished enough to compete, but their current one kills itself none too softly with its lighting.

Every few years their Christmas bankroller switches flavour and tone, and last year their joshing modern cartoon revision by Gerald Scarfe was replaced by a new staging that looked intent on being the perfect Victorian Christmas card, with iceskaters on the street and bustles in the costuming. But you couldn't see it in the ultraviolet gloom. For its second run this Christmas, could, would Wayne Eagling (ENB’s director) fix it?

Nutcracker Battle of Nutcracker and Mouse KingSad to say, last night its return to the Coliseum only emphasised how a decent production continues to feel as if it is pulling itself in two. The polite 19th-century-style designs of Peter Farmer can't live with the bruise-purple 21st-century nightclub lighting of David Richardson. Red-eyed raggedy rodents (pictured above) seem designed, properly and memorably, to be creatures of nightmare whom Clara and the Nutcracker will vanquish, yet they’re played for light laughs and make a general nuisance of themselves without obvious purpose. There are confusing substitutions and switches of nephews and Nutcrackers, of a young prepubescent Clara for a mature ballerina Clara. A pervy Arabian dance with whips follows a delightfully childish hot-air balloon ride. Contradictions everywhere, rather than harmony in the storytelling, harmony in the theatrical purpose.

First to fix should have been its lighting, which puts the chillers on the show, when the costumes and sets beg to be shown in all their prettiness in a feast of brightness or night shadows, not turned to general mouldy grey by the electronic blue overcast. One’s mood in the theatre is crucially directed by the artistry of the lighting, its emotional and narrative messages, its intimacy, underlining, distance, inclusiveness or isolation. There can be no dreams up there if the lighting designer hasn’t the eye to create them.

Another dampener is the wall of beige net curtain dropped over the front of the Christmas party, which turns Clara’s family party into a flat parade of sepia into which various nice contrivances, such as the puppet theatre and the magician Drosselmeyer’s tricks, vanish without significance. Get rid of the gauze! We want to feel part of the party!

But what a deceptively difficult ballet this is to put on. That spun-sugar score demands only the choicest cuts of choreography and musical playing. Its story of two halves with many characters requires thoughtful and imaginative dramaturgy, particularly in fitting all the activities of Act II into Clara’s imagination so that we can dream about them along with her. And it should - however it styles itself - feel like the Christmas to end all Christmasses, a Christmas tree of dreams that reaches incredible size, and a heaven of most glorious sweets and treats. Peter Wright, the magician of the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Nutcrackers, knows all that and feeds our wishes.

Nutcracker SnowflakesEagling is much more prosaic and less attentive to fantasy. His choreography is breezy, energetic and unmusical - what possessed him to have the Snowflakes leap on for the opening of their music, their toe-shoes thumping the floor like gunfire in music which whispers and shimmers?

His Waltz of the Flowers, the other great ensemble set piece, has well-wrought formations, but I don’t believe from the half-hearted and muddled Transformation Scene choreography that he loves this music and responds to its narrative suggestiveness as Wright does. Nor was it obvious last night from the sturdy beat in the pit that ENB’s conductor Gavin Sutherland is madly in love with all the frissons, frills and forest murmurs that Tchaikovsky showers on the orchestra.

Nutcracker KlimentovaThere was glory at least for a few heartstopping moments, when ENB’s tremendous lead pairing of Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov took the stage for the great opening duet of the grand pas de deux. The lad, about half his ballerina’s age, dances with a grave face and flying leaps, a seraphic cavalier. Between them they created the story that a great Nutcracker should, the unspeakable tension of loss and finding again, in every sequence that separates them and brings them back together again. The refined Klimentová (pictured right) seems to melt with relief every time she reaches Muntagirov’s safe hands for another perfectly poised pirouette or sensually extended arabesque, and the moment she does, you feel that nightmares will fade away and all will be right with the world.

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