sat 20/07/2024

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

Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

Nutcracker, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

Likeable dancers deliver Christmas cheer despite the mice

Icy: dancers of English National Ballet as snowflakes in Wayne Eagling's production of 'Nutcracker'.© ASH

Christmas legends are not born; they are made. In the case of the Nutcracker, its Christmas indispensability in Britain and America stems not from the original 1892 St Petersburg production, but from 1950s reinterpretations by emigré Russians (Balanchine and Karinska in the US, Lichine and Benois in the UK). Like most other story ballets, there is no stable text - apart from the Tchaikovsy score, of course, but Balanchine was happy to cut and rearrange that too.

The rest is a palimpsest of story treatments, costume designs, and questionable psychoanalytic interpretations, presenting many pitfalls for anyone aspiring to make a new production.

It would be consistent with the generally low critical opinion of Wayne Eagling's 2010 Nutcracker for English National Ballet to say that he fell into most of them, but that's not quite true. Eagling does the set-up well, establishing Clara and her family as believable characters whose interactions at the opening party are far more natural and lively than in the rather mannered Royal Ballet version of the same scene. The children of Tring Park School, including Cheryl Heung playing the young Clara, are charming on stage, making light work of the brisk country dances Eagling choreographed for them, and there are good character turns from other dancers, including Michael Coleman as the Grandfather. James Streeter does his best as Drosselmeyer, energetically directing the action and diverting all and sundry with magic tricks etc, but he's a victim of the generally gloomy costume and lighting design in this scene; give the man a brighter cloak and some glitter and we'd really see him shine.

The Mouse King in ENB's production of NutcrackerThe substitution of the adult ballerina Erina Takahashi for the child Clara is skillfully done; alas, if only one could say the same for the frequent switches between the Nutcracker (Fernando Bufalá) and the Nephew (Yonah Acosta) which confuse the end of Act I and the beginning of Act II. It's the muddying of these crystal clear moments for which I find it hardest to forgive Eagling: where the score follows the Act I defeat of the Mouse King with the glorious Journey Through the Snow sequence and opens Act II with the sparkling vision of the Kingdom of the Sweets, Eagling refuses to let the red-eyed rodent  (pictured right) die when he ought to, forcing everyone to fanny around with masks, swords and a red curtain when they should be meeting the Sugar Plum Fairy.

After that, things start to improve again with some decent designs and dancing in the "national" variations. Crystal Costa brings the class of a proper soubrette to her quick turn in the Spanish variation; I was impressed by Anjuli Hudson's impeccable timing in the Chinese one, and elegant Alison McWhinney was a fluttery joy in the Mirlitons - though it still seems a terrible shame to me to waste that music (the fruit-and-nut-case tune, for those who're old enough) on just two dancers rather than the whole corps. But we get that in the Waltz of the Flowers, which I do like; Peter Farmer's costumes for the women are satisfyingly pink, and the choreography seems to move the way the music wants it to, swift and tireless as a mountain stream. Among the lead flowers, Francisco Bosch and Shiori Kase shone both for their individual refinements and their clean partner work; fellow flowers Max Westwell and Senri Kou didn't find it so easy.

The ENB orchestra under Misako Tomita played sympathetically One of the problems with the Nutcracker/Nephew goings-on is that the real hero, the Nephew, doesn't get a clear moment of triumph, nor a proper chance to establish a connection with Clara. When Yonah Acosta is playing the Nephew, that's a sad thing; he's got more than a bit of his famous uncle's charming stage presence, and he's a properly warm, gallant partner to Takahashi when he gets the chance to be. But by the time of the grand pas de deux, we still haven't got enough of a connection to the two of them as a couple to make it reach the height of ecstatic grandeur I've seen with other principals (and audiences might yet see later this run, when Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru take the part of Clara).

With their complement of good dancers and decent orchestra (playing nicely last night under Misato Tomita's very sympathetic baton), ENB have it in them to do Nutcracker really, really well - so we'll all cross our fingers that a new, or at least reworked, production will come along soon. In the meantime, despite the Eagling production's faults, I wouldn't turn down the chance to see the Petipa/Ivanov jewel of a grand pas and hear the score live; those original flashes of brilliance would shine through many more messy layers of (mis)interpretation than this.

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