Reawakening The Nutcracker, as created by its founding father, was a smart move by Scottish Ballet’s supremo, Christopher Hampson. The late Peter Darrell’s choreography survived a quarter of a century, from 1973 until 1997, by when Philip Prowse’s original set and costumes had deteriorated to the point of no longer being serviceable. After a seventeen-year absence – partly filled by former artistic director, Ashley Page’s interpretation, set in the Weimar Republic – Darrells’s production was given an exciting design makeover by Lez Brotherston for a major revival in the Christmas season of 2014.
Having missed that event, I was delighted to catch this welcome return, for it is a charming, uplifting ballet that truly sets the scene for Christmas. A large part of the heart-warming effect was Darrell’s decision to populate the stage with children, a Scottish Ballet principle that has been accentuated during Hampson’s tenure – his Hansel & Gretel, for example, has several children in the cast. Children onstage, within a professional show, has a galvansing effect on children in the audience and it was clear that this younger crop of spectators were enchanted by the whole experience, including a foyer studded with life-size Nutcracker dolls and an enormous tree, festooned with baubles and pointe shoes, all of which were in much demand for selfies. The lead children on stage were Lily Wearmouth (as Clara, almost ever-present throughout the ballet) and Jack Burns (as her brother, Fritz). They – and their families – will have very good reasons to be proud of these charming performances.
Darrell’s production is enchantingly traditional. At a Christmas houseparty hosted by her parents, Clara is given a Nutcracker doll by her mysterious godfather, Drosselmeyer (Nicholas Shoesmith in eccentric professor mode), and – after everyone has gone to bed – Clara returns to fall asleep hugging her doll, dreaming of a drawing-room battle between toy soldiers and an army of mice – led by the high-kicking King Rat (Jamiel Laurence); Drosselmeyer transforms her doll into a handsome Nutcracker Prince and the rodents are defeated. As a reward, the old magician transports Clara and the Prince on an excursion to the land of ice and snow and the land of sweets where they are entertained by a gala of international dances before Clara awakes from her dream and is carried to bed by her father, the Colonel (Matthew Broadbent). The twist in the tail arrives with the reappearance of Drosselmeyer for a final, glittering coup de theatre. Perhaps, it was not a dream, after all?
That this old-fashioned vision of The Nutcracker works so well is accentuated by Brotherston’s impressive designs. Costumes are colourful and authentic as if brought to life from a Victorian Children’s storybook and the design of the drawing room for the house party is simple, but effective; meeting the twin needs of evoking the magic in a production that has to be toured. Brotherston has refurbished key elements of Prowse’s original designs, thus preserving the authenticity of Darrell’s production, including the beautiful backdrop of hundreds of pastel-coloured baubles, hung to varying heights, representing the Land of the Sweets. It seems simple; it must be very complicated stage management; and it is extremely effective.
In this production, the Nutcracker and the Prince are one-and-the-same, meaning that the Scottish principal dancer, Christopher Harrison does double duty, dancing both the glorious petit pas de deux as a prelude to the land of snow and ice and the grand pas de deux at the end of the sweet banquet. Harrison is an unshowy and solid performer who articulates precision in his dancing – fingers and feet, unerringly pointed – with secure partnering that shows his ballerina to supreme effect. As the Snow Queen, Constance Devernay, shared the gorgeous petit pas with Harrison, a dance that ushers in the most lusciously symphonic sequence of Tchaikovsky’s music for this, the last of his trio of ballets, beautifully danced by the small corps of snowflakes, in Brotherston’s Winter Wonderland.
The various national offerings in the realm of the Sweets include the rare sight of the English dance by a sailor in full hornpipe rig (Thomas Edwards), a further idiosyncrascy that marks out the originality of Darrell’s vision; and there is another unusual twist in the Chinese dance being performed delicately by two women (Daniela Oddi and Nicole Conti). Following the aforementioned English dance and a delightful waltz for the Flower Fairies, the ballet’s major set piece comes – as always – with the grand pas de deux, in which Harrison is joined by Sophie Martin, who gave an exquisite performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy, dancing a beautiful variation and coda, exemplifying the lines, steps and poses with sublime refinement. It was an enchanting conclusion to this further reawakening of an enchanted production.