For all the recent innovations that Tamara Rojo has brought to the English National Ballet, including three stunning full-evening programmes of her own devising, the Nutcracker is still the heart of every season, having been performed at Christmas in every one of the company’s 66 years to date, including in its former guise as the London Festival Ballet.
So far, there have been ten different versions of Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous ballet score to enter the company’s repertory with this latest iteration, made by Wayne Eagling, premiering in 2010, towards the end of his tenure as artistic director.
This is not a production that has lasted well and, since it has already achieved the average lifespan of an LFB/ENB Nutcracker, I sincerely hope that it is time for a replacement. And, for those that might argue that the ENB Board has more exciting things to do with the limited money at its disposal than create an eleventh version of the same ballet, let me add that they don’t need a new one, since there’s an excellent production sitting in storage.
My New Year’s wish for 2017 is for ENB to revitalise Christopher Hampson’s wonderful choreography, made in 2002, enlivened by Gerald Scarfe’s colourful and timeless designs. It would certainly be an improvement on this Christmas card pastiche with its clunky set transitions – not to mention confusing character changes within the same duet – and a hot air balloon that invariably seems to “fly” with the fits and starts of a car with terminal engine trouble.
Both acts suffer from a lack of magic. In the opening session, it is a lack of illusion in the transformation from Edwardian house party into a battle between mice and toy soldiers. This later action takes place in the troubled dreams of the young Clara, with events transferring from the family house to a winter wonderland (thankfully, not in Hyde Park) before a journey by the aforementioned hot air balloon takes the main protagonists to Drosselmeyer’s puppet theatre; occupying the place of the more traditional kingdom of the sweets, as the setting for the second act. This is also a Nutcracker without a Sugar Plum Fairy, since the pas de deux is danced by the grown-up Clara (in young Clara’s dream).
Confusing? It is, even after countless viewings over the past six years. The most awkward aspect of Clara’s dream is alternating the Nutcracker and Drosselmeyer’s handsome nephew, with whom Clara has become besotted at the Christmas party, as the same character played by two different dancers. This means that the beautiful music of Tchaikovsky’s “little” pas de deux becomes a kind of “excuse me” dance while the Nutcracker and the Nephew change places, leaving Clara to dance alone for awhile! It is – without doubt – the messiest interpretation of this melodic music that I have seen.
To give credit where it is due, however, Eagling makes up for this odd mix-and-match duet with an outstanding grand pas de deux for Clara and the Nephew to close the show; and the majority of his national dances of the second act are sensitively observed, not least in the Arabian Dance, which is much improved from the 2010 original. My concern about these dances being imagined “inside” the puppet theatre is in necessitating a rather bland stage setting (contrasting poorly with Scarfe’s lavish sweet-themed designs for the Hampson production).
The greatest compensation for an atrophying production came in memorable performances. Alina Cojocaru finished a year of celebrated dancing, around the world, with a sparkling account of Clara. There’s not much dramatic nuance required, although I loved her feisty, ebullient innocence in the battle with the mice, which read like a character from an Enid Blyton adventure. And, as always, she adds intelligent little touches to make the choreography her own.
Rojo deserves credit for pairing Cojocaru, her most senior ballerina, with Cesar Corrales, who is – remarkably – just three months’ past his twentieth birthday. It is salutary to note that this was precisely the same age as Vadim Muntagirov when he took this role at the premiere, in 2010; and he, too, benefitted beyond measure from a partnership with an experienced ballerina (Daria Klimentová). In that year, Muntagirov was nominated for the Outstanding Classical Performance in the National Dance Awards; and, this year, Corrales is up for the same honour, at the same age.
Ballet history tells us that partnerships between older ballerinas and young men can be legendary (Fonteyn was 19 years’ older than Nureyev, for example) and in this trial between Cojocaru and Corrales, we can see why this is so. This young man does not need to convince us of his ability to fly through a variation, full of tricks, with huge jumps and furiously fast spins. He is an exciting solo dancer, bound – I feel – for a similar upwardly-mobile career as Muntagirov; but to achieve greatness he needs to master the less flashy requirements of the adagio. And, this performance showed that Corrales is a fast learner, no doubt helped by Cojocaru. He still needs to make the promenades look more elegant but his care and security as a partner, in presenting the ballerina to the very best effect, was a massive improvement on what I have seen before.
Rojo lost Muntagirov to The Royal Ballet, soon after her directorship began (although she gained Cojocaru in a trip the other way) and it was not long before Klimentová retired. Now, she seems to have turned back the clock and created a new stellar partnership of experienced ballerina and fast-rising virtuoso dancer. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Sophia Mucha gave a charming performance as the young Clara, dancing beautifully; with Euan Garrett, a suitably rebellious naughty brother, Freddie. Both are pupils at the Tring Park School. James Streeter stole scenes as the manic Mouse King (a character that lasts an irritatingly long time in this production) and James Forbat danced effectively in the thankless role as the Nutcracker doll, performing in that cumbersome mask, which must hinder the performer’s vision. Others to catch my eye were Laurretta Summerscales, dancing as Clara’s older sister, Louise, in act one and returning as the Mirliton, to partner Fabian Reimar’s Drosselmeyer, in Clara’s dream; the elegant Katja Khaniukova in a politically-correct Chinese dance, with Grant Rae and Joshua McSherry-Gray; a sublime Snowflakes ensemble, led by Alison McWhinney and Rina Kanehara; and the practical jokes of Michael Coleman’s mischievous Grandfather.
Although this production is looking tired and confused, the performances throughout the cast were top-notch. This is the time of year when the ENB dancers and staff really earn their corn: with no less than 50 performances of Nutcracker, 38 of them virtually back-to-back at the London Coliseum, to be followed immediately by a run of Mary Skeaping’s production of Giselle. Christmas Day is not a holiday for these hard-working dancers; just an extra day to sleep!