There aren’t many big classics productions that 25 years after their premiere are still thought of as the best in the land. But that’s the case with Peter Wright’s Nutcracker for Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) and to celebrate its continued greatness the company brought together Sir Peter and others connected with that first season to reminisce about the production and the early days of the company. The production was Wright’s gift to the city of Birmingham for becoming their new home that year (1990), in which the company changed its name from Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (SWRB) to Birmingham Royal Ballet and took possession of a brand new custom-built home adjacent to the Hippodrome.
The success of the BRB Nutcracker is really down to Peter Wright and designer John Macfarlane – it’s lavish but not in a bling way with cheap gold and crystals spread thick, but in terms of its design richness and depth. It takes 3 days to rig the Birmingham Hippodrome for it and then 2 days of technical rehearsal to get it and the dancers all running smoothly, and as the show unfolds, the layers of set and movement within it take you on a truly magical journey like no other. Because of its complexity it’s not a production that generally tours and so is perhaps not as widely known as it should be. BRB would love to simplify the sets so it could tour but both they and Macfarlane are acutely aware that they don’t want to lose the specialness of what they have and it’s not yet a project going forward. I asked David Bintley, the current BRB director, how much it would cost to produce the Nutcracker today and although we never did work it out he did say it originally cost £1m back in 1990 – which was a huge amount at the time, if a bargain given the use the company have got from it over the nearly 500 performances that have been danced. While you might still have to travel to Birmingham to see this Nut, and it’s a trip I think all should try and make, you will get to see newly fresh costumes as the company steadily refurbishes and re-costumes it for hopefully another 25 years. And as I write tickets have just gone on sale for next Christmas – such is its pulling power.
Besides Peter Wright, three others were there to celebrate the Nutcrackers Silver Anniversary: Marian Tait (now Assistant Director, but then a principal dancer with SWRB), Peter Todd, former Chief Executive of Birmingham Hippodrome and part of the Birmingham ‘pull’ to get the company to relocate, and finally Kit Holder, now a company soloist and rising choreographer, who as a child appeared in that first performance. Since then he has ratcheted up 12 Nutcracker roles over the years and that afternoon he was down to dance 3 of them. It was performing with the company in Nutcracker that convinced the young Holder that all the effort in ballet was worthwhile – the rest is history, as they say.
Perhaps the most astounding thing to hear from Sir Peter was the way the move to Birmingham happened. Despite being Director of SWRB he was not privy to the initial high-level talks, one suspects because nobody was sure what he and the company might think of the idea. They must have done a good job because when he was told he immediately went to Birmingham to see the movers and shakers and was actually more than “pleasantly surprised”. Although he and the company all came to see the huge advantage of relocating (which the Hippodrome paid for), Sir Peter didn’t want to change the name from Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. While it might seen daft now, you can feel his concern in abandoning such a well-known brand. But thank goodness they did and the company properly celebrates the great city that is now home.
Archive 1990: The Premiere of The Nutcracker in Birmingham
This year our production of The Nutcracker celebrates its Silver Anniversary in the city of Birmingham. Take a look at some of the work that went into that opening night at Birmingham Hippodrome back in 1990, and be sure to book your seats for this year's stunning season!
Posted by Birmingham Royal Ballet on Thursday, November 5, 2015
An archive TV news report from 1990 about The Nutcracker premiere.
25 years on the company dances at the Birmingham Hippodrome for roughly 10 weeks each year and has presented Brummies with 121 different ballets in all. The Hippodrome’s commitment to dance goes beyond that, with about a quarter of its programming being dance based, and notably Sylvie Guillem made her last-ever UK performance there this summer. But the city’s dance ambition ever expands with DanceXchange and the Hippodrome collaborating on the biennial International Dance Festival Birmingham (IDFB), which grows in stature each iteration and next year (May 2016) boasts 5 world and 6 UK premieres. And to crown it all the Chancellor recently announced that the city would be getting a £4m Dance Hub via the money government gives to the Arts Council. And of course the Arts Council also recently gave extra money to BRB to tour more around the UK. I’ve strayed away from the Nutcracker, but perhaps the overriding message is that it’s a special production, of world class, and Birmingham has steadily grown to become a special place for dance in the UK. In London, and elsewhere, that’s not always as appreciated as it should be.
Sir Peter created the BRB Nutcracker just 6 years after his famous Royal Ballet (RB) production in London – another much-loved classic that is still going strong and which he has revised over the years. Wright loves both versions, but is also clear that the RB version was the result of various collaborations, whereas in Birmingham he felt he could just do what he wanted in laying it all out – and that was to keep it simple. He was actually on a tremendous high at the time: the move had gone well and he felt like his life had been leading up to taking the company to Birmingham and to fashioning this first production on the newly renamed troupe – that’s his work as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, ballet master, producer and director – Wright’s is one of the most wide-ranging dance CVs you will find. Although it’s Sir Peter’s show, he does see it as really a shared production with John Macfarlane and I think anybody who has seen it can appreciate that. All up it was fascinating to listen to the backstory of how SWRB became BRB and the best large company Nut of them all got created. I look forward to Peter Wright’s biography (written with Paul Arrowsmith) emerging next summer.
So with that terrific preamble all done, in what shape was the Wright Nutcracker looking this year? Brilliant shape but of course(!) and as a production I can’t recall it being otherwise. The transformation scene and the entrance of the King Rat always gets to me and most else really. Nao Sakuma and Mathias Dingman as Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince led things out, she with calm, precise authority and he with go-for-it charm. Charming also was Arancha Baselga as Clara, the heroine that all the little girls in the audience identify with. But it’s a team effort and the company all pull together well in a ballet full of cameo roles. And as I watched, and Kit Holder danced his 3 roles, I wondered what youngster on stage this year would be around 25 years hence to tell another generation of scribblers just how glorious a production it is to perform in.