Credits for the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker acknowledge that the ballet is essentially Peter Wright’s. He adapted Marius Petipa’s 1892 scenario and made it his own; over ninety per cent of the choreography is his, apart from Lev Ivanov’s Grand pas de deux (and possibly the Chinese dance in Act II).). Sir Peter has revised the 1984 production during its 31 years, watching young Claras grow into ballerinas and even ballet mistresses.
The designs, by Julia Trevelyan Oman, remain the same. They are so intricately detailed that it comes as something of a revelation to see them close up on a big screen, however many times you might have been to The Nutcracker in the theatre. One of the pleasures of repeated visits to live performances is appreciating how cleverly the producer/choreographer and his designer link the two acts and how, like Alice in Wonderland, the scale changes from small to big. Toy figures in Act I turn into children, then into adults in Act II; the marzipan and icing sugar confection at the Christmas party becomes the palace of the Kingdom of the Sweets.
The magician who brings all this about is the central character of Drosselmeyer – Gary Avis on the opening night of this revival. Drosselmeyer used to be rather a sinister figure, with a black patch over one eye. Now he’s a benign, glamorous master-of-ceremonies who brings a sparkle of gold dust to everything he touches. That includes Clara, his favourite, who, in the shape of Francesca Hayward, is on her way to a glittering future.
Hayward is petite enough to look as child-like as the Royal Ballet School youngsters at the Stahlbaums’ party. (They’re a lot more natural now than their predecessors used to be, drilled into daintiness.) She responds so joyously to Tchaikovsky’s music that she does indeed seem enchanted on her journey with Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter – Alexander Campbell, a charming Nutcracker.
Hayward’s elegant feet take her where she needs to be, as if in a dream: like the Red Shoes, her pointe shoes are imbued with magic, though good, not bad. Just one is powerful enough to stun the Mouse King.
She and Campbell soar happily through the flurries of snowflakes – the corps de ballet on tinglingly fine form. Wright has given them more, better steps to dance in recent revivals, instead of simply scurrying around in patterns retrieved from the old Stepanov notation of Ivanov’s snowflakes. The result is a greater number of pas de chats in Wright’s choreography for flakes, flowers and mirliton flute-players than the Royal Ballet can have danced all year.
Clara and Hans-Peter take part in the Act II divertissements instead of sitting watching them. Hayward’s feet know exactly what to do when she joins in, allowing her upper body to move more spontaneously than those of the dancers in the set-piece ‘national’ numbers. She’s a free, innocent spirit in a make-believe alternative world. Good to see experienced soloists in the divertissements, however brief their roles, as well as up-and-coming ones, including Yasmine Naghdi as the leading Rose Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers.
Drosselmeyer has conjured up a royal couple to preside over the confectionary kingdom, taking centre stage for their pas de deux to Tchaikovsky’s delicious music. Iana Salenko, a guest from the Berlin State Ballet, and Steven McRae are well-matched in their physiques and musicality, pausing together before catching up with the next phrase. Porcelain precise Salenko sailed through the Sugar Plum variation to the celesta (a newly-fashioned instrument for the Royal Opera House orchestra, according to a programme note). Her technique is so polished that it’s surprising she can’t accomplish gargouillades – a form of pas de chat in which both legs execute swift circles before landing. They are a Sugar Plum speciality that Royal Ballet principals are (or should be) trained to do.
This Nutcracker production has the best conclusion of any. Clara wakes from her enchantment to find herself at home. She runs into the snowy street to find Drosselmeyer for an explanation and encounters a bundled-up young man. He returns to his uncle’s workshop, revealing he is no longer a Nutcracker – the curse has been broken. We realise he must now live only a few bars of music away from Clara.
Wright has brought what he learnt from his second Nutcracker, created in 1991 for Birmingham Royal Ballet, into his revisions for the older Covent Garden one. His Drosselmeyer is an altruistic magician whose concern is to save his nephew through Clara’s intervention; he’s not her over-indulgent godfather, which can seem creepy in other productions (though not BRB’s). With two Nutcrackers this season, his Royal Ballet Giselle in the new year and productions of some of his early ballets by the Sarasota Ballet in Florida, Sir Peter is enjoying a choreographic renaissance in his eighties.