Sir Peter Wright’s 90th birthday this week is being celebrated in London and Birmingham with his productions of The Nutcracker, over 30 years since he first mounted it. After the curtain calls at the first night of the Royal Ballet’s revival, a cake was wheeled on, looking remarkably similar to the ‘sugar table confection’ in Act I – the basis of the set for Act II. Surrounded by all the cast, including Royal Ballet School pupils, Sir Peter blew out his candles, with a little help from artistic director Kevin O’Hare. Sir Peter has known Kevin and his older brother Michael since they were boys, dancing in his productions. On stage was Christina Arestis in a senior role as the Dancing Mistress, having been a junior Clara in her student days. Truly a theatrical-family celebration, with another to come two days later with Birmingham Royal Ballet.
The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker has undergone various changes since its gala premiere in 1984, not least in the central roles of Clara and Drosselmeyer. Clara has gone from being danced by a principal to a student, a corps member, or a rising star, such as Francesca Hayward , who then graduates to being the Sugar Plum Fairy. Drosselmeyer, who started out as a rather sinister councillor with an eye-patch, has become a benevolent magician and party entertainer. The plot has been adapted over the years to make it less irrational, forging a link between the two otherwise disconnected acts.
Sir Peter, as his autobiography confirms, has honed his craft as a story-teller. He knows how to guide an audience’s attention to important incidents and characters’ reactions – a skill that novice choreographers of narrative ballets would do well to acquire. He enriches his productions with minor diversions to entertain spectators and performers already familiar with a frequently revived ballet. His Royal Ballet Nutcracker is so rich in detail, thanks to Julia Trevelyan Oman’s Biedermeier-period set, that some of its intricacies are best seen in close-up in a cinema relay. (Live screening on 8 December, Encore screening 11 December).
I thought I detected another layer of sub-plot this year in the threatening behaviour of Drosselmeyer’s automata, Harlequin and Columbine, the soldier and vivandière dolls. Wright has turned Drosselmeyer into a maker of clocks and mechanical toys. His invention of a killer mouse-trap is the motor for the plot: the vengeful Queen of the Mice transformed Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter, into an ugly Nutcracker disguise from which he must be rescued. Clara is to be the agent of his recovery. She, however, is about to be kidnapped in turn by the the automata who have turned against their creator. They menace young Clara when she comes downstairs at the start of the transformation scene, masterminded by Drosselmeyer.
But Clara is protected by guardian angels as well as by her magician godfather. Although he made the wooden angel for the Christmas tree, her sister angels, gliding around as if on ball-bearings, must be semi-divine beings. Otherwise, Drosselmeyer appears too omnipotent. He has set up Clara to save his nephew and to fall in first-love with him. Her reward is to be entertained in a magic kingdom by grown-up dancers orchestrated by Drosselmeyer himself. Wright has solved the problem of having a girl on the cusp of womanhood being indulged with a vision of Sweetieland in Act II, but now it’s an adult’s fantasy, not Clara’s, with no children involved. (Wright omits the dance for Mother Gigogne and the brood of tinies beneath her skirts, which Balanchine, among others, included in his Nutcracker.)
There are plenty of youngsters in Act I, set in the Stahlbaum’s lavishly decorated house, with a brief prologue in Drosselmeyer’s workshop. We know at once that Clara is to be the centre of attention, even though Francesca Hayward is no taller than the excited girls at the Christmas party. When she rises on pointe, however, she catches the eye of a young man, Tristan Dyer, whose infatuation will be in vain. Hayward is unmissable, thanks to the eager elegance of her line, the tilt of her head and her joyous smile. Gary Avis, who makes a spectacular entrance at the party, turquoise and gold cloak swirling about him, treats her just right. She is still childish enough to weep at the damage to her Nutcracker present, inflicted by her fiendishly cute little brother (Caspar Lench), but resolute enough to be entrusted with the task she must accomplish.
Yet more children are involved in the mighty battle between the mice, led by their king (Nicol Edmonds), and the toys from the Christmas party. Their manoeuvres are so efficient that the performers’ youth came as surprise when they removed their masks to salute Sir Peter after the curtain calls on Wednesday night. The transformation of the scale of the set and the Christmas tree is achieved by wonderfully old-fashioned theatre magic, done by lifts, traps and muscle power – accompanied, of course, by Tchaikovsky’s spine-tingling music.
Clara grows up during her encounter with Hans-Peter (Alexander Campbell), freed from his Nutcracker carapace. They, in Wright’s choreography, capture the thrill of finding each other on a journey through a snowy forest, caught up in flurry of snowflakes. Hayward conveys ecstasy as she flies in Campbell’s arms and bounds alongside his soaring leaps. He has to assert a personality to establish himself as more than a likeable partner, which he did so successfully that his mime scene and exuberant dancing were applauded on Wednesday night. No wonder both dancers were made principals this year.
The Act II divertissements were ably done, in costumes reminiscent of those worn by characters in Act I. Johannes Stepanek’s smile was as charming as ever in the Spanish dance, while Itziar Mendizabal glowered alluringly in the Arabian number, with three towering escorts. Luca Acri and Marcelino Sambé were given a lively new Chinese dance by Wright to replace the clichéd one with finger pointing and head nodding. Tristan Dyer and Paul Kay deployed their flexibility in the Cossack dance, joined by supple Campbell. Hayward joined in the perky dance of the Mirlitons and the Waltz of the Flowers, her fluidity contrasting with the dancers’ drilled precision. She doesn’t hit poses so much as flow through them, extending her gaze beyond her fingertips as she covers space.
Clara’s supreme award, other than the necklace given her by the Sugar Plum, is to watch the Grand pas de deux, the epitome of classical ballet in Lev Ivanov’s more-or-less original choreography. The pas de deux was immaculately executed by Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli, though without the heart-rending awareness of Tchaikovsky’s melancholy to serve as reminder that enchantment is fleeting.
Wright’s ending avoids too abrupt a return to reality. Drosselmeyer and an angel supervise Clara’s return home, leaving Hans-Peter to find his own way. Clara meets him the street and points him in the direction of his uncle’s workshop. She’ll know where to find him again. Drosselmeyer expresses happy surprise at his nephew’s return, even though he arranged it all. The ultimate arranger, Sir Peter Wright, was showered with flowers and gold dust when he acknowledged our applause, which, he insisted, was not for his production but for the originators of the ballet – Ivanov, Petipa and Tchaikovsky.