Another December, another Royal Ballet Nutcracker: anything new to report? Not much, no. And for once that’s probably the answer most people are hoping to hear – it’s nostalgia and the familiar music, the Christmas tree that grows and the Sugar Plum Fairy that bring so many adults back time after time, without even the excuse of small children to be entertained. Me too: the versions with Freudian undertones, mobile phones, determinedly naughty goings-on at the party are fine for a change now and then, but for a long-term relationship the traditional version is best.
Even so it was interesting to discover one thing that is undoubtedly new this season – a long interview in the programme book in which Peter Wright talks to Mark Monahan about his production, and how it has actually changed over nearly thirty years. Although I seem to remember it being sold originally as being very closely modelled on the original version, Wright now claims almost all the choreography as his own, the exceptions being the grand pas de deux, of course, and the Chinese dance – which, praise be, he hopes to replace when he next gets the chance. I’m rather less in agreement with his insistence on his largely invented story-line and the prominence he gives to the magician Drosselmeyer. For me the tale of the lost nephew just doesn’t resonate enough to carry a whole evening and I don’t find Drosselmeyer himself an interesting enough character to justify his constant presence. (Which is not meant as a criticism of the dancer who takes the role – Gary Avis, on this occasion, repeating his now famously detailed interpretation.)
On this occasion, too, I felt that the stardust that Drosselmeyer scatters around wasn’t quite doing its stuff: the big moments were fine and there were some wonderful individual contributions, but I’ve seen several of the minor roles better cast, and indeed better done by the same performers in a couple of cases. For the nth time at a Royal Ballet first night I found myself thinking that it will look much more lively later on in the run. Meanwhile there was real pleasure to be had from stalwarts such as Elizabeth McGorian and Christopher Saunders as Clara’s parents, from Deirdre Chapman as the Dancing Mistress and from Tristan Dyer in the little cameo role of Clara’s first partner.
The Nutcracker, here called Hans-Peter, was Alexander Campbell – a nice straightforward reliable young man who could just do with a little more sparkle. Federico Bonelli was elegant as ever as the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Prince, but that surely must be one of the most thankless cavalier roles in the repertory, especially in the depersonalising and mildly ridiculous headdress he has to wear here. Yuhui Choe was the Rose Fairy and her always exquisitely pretty dancing was enhanced by more noticeable dynamic shading than I’ve sometimes seen from her.
That leaves Clara and Sugar Plum: Francesca Hayward and Laura Morera, two dancers who could hardly be more different from each other, their only similarity being that they were both a joy to watch. Hayward is in her third year in the company and she’s a really exciting prospect. She’s danced Clara before but was new to me: she’s so light and quick, showing us a girl who’s reaching out to life whilst still not entirely sure of herself – a lovely interpretation. Beautifully danced, too – the last person who gave me such pleasure in this role was Alina Cojocaru.
I remembered being delighted by Morera’s Sugar Plum Fairy last season and was happy to be delighted all over again. She’s far from the typical image of a classical ballerina – her worst enemy couldn’t describe her as dainty – and I just love watching her remake the role in her own style. In the gorgeous adagio – surely Tchaikowsky’s greatest – she uses her strength to produce wonderfully slow, weighted phrases, and then rips into the diagonal of turns in the coda with such relish, as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Pure theatre!