Like many major ballet companies, English National Ballet prizes the Nutcracker as a cornerstone of its annual repertoire. The troupe has pirouetted through ten different versions of the sugar-sweet production over the years, with the latest rendering, from former ENB artistic director Wayne Eagling, in circulation since in 2010. It’s the usual pageant of frothy fantasies, shimmering costumes and familiar Tchaikovsky tunes – a reliable formula for the seasonal favourite – but it takes a few conspicuous turns off course when it comes to staging and characterisation.
The first act sees Clara receive a nutcracker as a present from the enigmatic Dr Drosselmeyer, drift off to sleep, and enter a dreamscape where her new toy springs to life and squares off against the dastardly Mouse King. In the second she’s whisked away on a hot air balloon to tour an enchanted land, the evil rodent still in tow. The swing from an hour of exposition and action sequences to one of pure dance typically makes this a ballet of two halves, but the contrast is especially blunt here, thanks to the lumbering storytelling in the first act. A perfunctory vibe languishes, the company dutifully going along with all the miming and joshing but reluctant to fully pledge themselves to the material. It’s not until they’re in the Kingdom of Sweets, firmly steered by its dance-driven passages, that they lean into the show and give it some punch.
Eagling was adamant about casting children in the ballet’s younger roles, which produces a predictable mix of overegged dramatics on the one hand and adorable spontaneous developments on the other. (Call me the next time you see an adult absentmindedly pick a wedgie on stage!) This year’s crop of kids comes from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. Teenager Sophia Mucha is well placed as Clara, sweet and frisky, nimbly tackling the petit allegro in her big solo at the Christmas party. Once Clara enters dreamland, ENB principal Shiori Kase takes on the role, a canny decision that allows for an authentic portrayal of youth and advanced displays of technique within the same character. With Mucha’s cute expressiveness and Kase’s polished musicality, it’s easy to cheer on this set-up.
In a less effective move, both the Nutcracker (Guilherme Menezes) and Drosselmeyer’s nephew (Joseph Caley) swap in and out to dance with grown-up Clara, blurring these roles and leaving viewers wondering who the real hero of the story is. I vote for Caley, who partnered Kase with far more exuberance, a dashing smile dancing on his lips. (In fairness, Menezes might have been flashing his own jaunty grin, but we’ll never know, since he’s inexplicably costumed in a Guy Fawkes-style mask.)
One of the ballet’s biggest departures from tradition is having the same dancer play Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. The reasoning is unclear, but Kase proves versatile enough to pull it off, coquettish in her prickly piques and brisk port de bras – a contrast to Clara’s soft-edged prancing. She performs the ballet’s grand pas with Caley, who’s gussied up as her prince (again, unexplained). Between them they churn out sprightly lifts and dexterous turns. The duet isn’t without its missteps, but it’s a lustrous sequence all the same, aided by the charming trills of the much-loved score.
Other radiant moments include the Waltz of the Flowers – a burst of pink blossoms and kaleidoscopic lines – and the willowy flutters of the comely Mirlitons. Unfortunately, lazy caricatures plague most of the international divertissements, which don’t even have the convictions of their stereotypes – the Spanish sequence, for example, aims for fiery but is resolutely dull. The battle scenes likewise lack intensity, with phrasing that sees the baddies spend far more time hovering around Clara and company than actually posing a threat.
Still, the show looks the part, and given the extent to which the company relies on it to boost the year’s revenue, that counts for a lot. Peter Farmer’s set design is full of whimsy, from the postcard-perfect ice-skating montage opening the ballet to the hot air balloon voyage that closes it. The costumes are elegant – think opulent glamour rather than garish glitz – and there are some lovely touches that elevate the production value above the standard chocolate box fare: Father Time peeping out of a grandfather clock, a melodic children’s choir accompanying the Waltz of the Snowflakes, a mousetrap-cum-trebuchet wheeled out in the mice vs. tin soldiers skirmish. Sure, the Mouse King’s get-up reads more ‘feral sewer rat’ than ‘regal rodent emperor’, but James Streeter embraces the crudity, matching it with a level of rabid goofiness that would be hard to get away with in another ballet. It’s a shame to see his character disappear mysteriously after being dragged all the way into the second act – his creepy cavorting deserves a proper vanquishing.
Cobbled together, Nutcracker’s elements make for a charming, if uneven, Christmas spectacle. It’s not exactly spellbinding, but you can count on the ENB crew for fine form and festive cheer.