It doesn’t matter how many times you see The Nutcracker, each time the auditorium darkens, the conductor raises his baton and the delicate strains of Tchaikovsky’s exquisite score rise up from the pit, a tingle of anticipation permeates the auditorium, and audiences sit back contentedly for two hours of wonder and magic. And English National Ballet’s opening night at the London Coliseum was no different and transported its audience into scenes of days gone by when winters were cold and frosty, while today London is basking in double-figure temperatures and daffodils are blooming six weeks early.
English National Ballet – formerly London Festival Ballet – has been dancing this ever-popular Russian classic in various guises each holiday season for the past 50 years, delighting audiences and inspiring youngsters, and there is much in this production to enchant: the opening Christmas card scene showing guests arriving at the grand family home while skaters glide on a frozen Thames. Then the battle scene in which a line of pint-sized toy soldiers get bowled over like ninepins when mice catapult them with a chunk of cheese. And there are the sparkling Snowflakes dancing in gently falling snow to the singing of angelic children who stand in the front loge above the orchestra pit, arms held out a la Trapp Family. And the end of Act 1, where the Mouse King is seen hanging onto the under-carriage of the rising hot air balloon carrying off Clara, Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker.
The present production is by former director Wayne Eagling, with designs by Peter Farmer, and premiered in 2010. While it pleases visually with nostalgia and grandeur, the scenario gets unnecessarily complicated, and favourite traditional moments are missing, such as the wondrous growing of the Christmas tree. Here it’s feeble and unexciting, and watched by the lone Mouse King – (since when did mice have magical powers in this ballet? And why do they keep reappearing, creeping after Clara like Carabosse and her evil cohorts when their end should have come in the battle scene?) The Mouse King had earlier made a scary and sinister appearance on and around the bed of the sleeping Clara. Disturbed, she wakes and runs across the living room, to be replaced seconds later by the grown-up Clara who takes over, ready to do battle with the Mice. Then there is Drosselmeyer who here becomes more of a kindly uncle than a mysterious magician. Instead of bringing mechanical dolls to life, he introduces a puppet theatre, which then becomes the setting for Act 2 in place of the traditional colourful Land of Sweets. However, the greatest complication in the storyline is that of having two Nutcrackers throughout the performance. One moment Clara is dancing with the white masked ‘doll’, (James Forbat) the next he is suddenly replaced by Drosselmeyer’s nephew (Cesar Corrales), identically dressed, (sans mask), the young man who danced with little Clara at the party. The switching gets confusing.
However, the evening is saved by the lively dancing of the company, who are more than ready to show off their individual talents. Adele Ramirez, Crystal Costa and Fernando Bufala filled their Spanish dance with fast footwork, good characterisation and synchronization. The Arabian dance has been toned down somewhat, and the Slave driver’s bullwhip was cracked only once, and not at the dancing girls. Junor Souza showed off his supple body, stretching sensuously as the girls twirled around him. The Chinese trio waggled their heads, pointed fingers and smiled as their pigtails danced around their heads. The Russian dance has expanded into a Moiseyev number with two dancers moving with rollerblade smoothness around five active folk dancers, led by Yonah Acosta. He certainly can pull out the tricks and get the audience cheering him. And he deserved the acclaim for his strong leaps and good clean turns. There is only one Mirliton in this work and Ksenia Ovsyanick was as delicate as a butterfly, her feet hardly touching the floor as she flitted around the stage partnered by Drosselmeyer – Fabian Reimair. Throughout the scene the stage is empty except for the puppet theatre at the back from where the dancers appear to dance. There is no one watching – not even Clara and her Nutcracker, so the stage looks incredibly bare and bland. However, the Waltz of the Flowers brings warmth and colour, with the girls in tarlatans that look like hanging fuchsias – bright pink-red bodices that drip into pink net skirts – while their partners were in pastel blue-mauve. The lead dancers, Laurretta Summerscales and Alison McWhinney, who had shown great style and fine technique as lead Snowflakes, were now partnered by the delightful twins, Guilherme and Vitor Menezes looking elegant and partnering well. Then finally it is time for the Sugar Plum Fairy (Clara) and her Cavalier (Nephew) – on an empty stage!
Director Tamara Rojo made an unusual decision in choosing two younger dancers for press/opening night of the ballet, when normally the roles are given to top principals. This was the debut of junior soloist Cesar Corrales, and while, at times, somewhat tentative in his partnering, he showed that he has some fine and exciting technique to show off. His Clara was first soloist, Shiori Kase, who is completely natural and graceful in all she does. Musical and assured, she was as light as thistledown as she flew through the air and posed beautifully on balance.
Her younger self was a petite student from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts – as were all the children in the first act. Cheryl Heung has a soft and lyrical style despite being so young and while her miming, and that of her obnoxious brother (I am sure that William Darby is charming in real life!) was somewhat hammy and ‘by the book’, I’m sure it will develop more naturally as the season proceeds. The other children were well drilled and danced their roles well.
And so, after young Clara found herself back in bed and that it had all been a dream, the contented audience, with strains of Tchaikovsky’s memorable and popular score ringing in their heads, left the memories of winters past, and went out into London’s balmy December night.