English National Ballet is shortly to celebrate its seventieth anniversary and in every one of those years, the company has danced The Nutcracker as its Christmas highlight. It is an unbroken tradition possibly unrivalled anywhere in the world, even despite the ubiquity of this festive ballet across America. These relentless annual performances require a regular refurbishment of the product and this version by former artistic director, Wayne Eagling, is the tenth to roll off the company’s assembly line since 1950. Having premiered in 2010, it is now two years’ past the median lifespan of an ENB Nutcracker and – despite many attributes – the show has reached its sell-by date.
It appears especially tired in the second act where the concept of Clara’s dream miniaturises the action within the Spartan setting of a puppet theatre rather than on its usual journey to the glamorous kingdom of the sweets. This minimalist approach undermines the intended pizzazz of the national dances, which appear as incongruous and unadorned interludes performed on a bare stage. I’m also tiring of the strange mechanical Nutcracker doll with its huge feet, appearing more like the robot from Lost in Space. It is especially annoying when the beautiful “little” pas de deux (immediately after the battle with the mice) is rudely interrupted by the “excuse me” midway through, when Drosselmeyer brings his nephew to replace the injured Nutcracker as Clara’s partner.
Such dog-eared edges are once again smoothed over by a host of excellent performances, not least in the lead role as Clara (which, uniquely, in this production, incorporates the magic of the Sugar Plum Fairy). What a joy it was to see Erina Takahashi, now in her 23rd year with the company (the last 19 as principal), take the opening night. Takahashi proves the old adage that youth is wasted on the young by convincingly rolling back the years with her effortless assurance of juvenile joy and enthusiasm. Beautiful framing of arms and silky fluidity of movement were testament to a ballerina who not only remains in full command of her technique but has polished these skills with layers of experience to achieve an assertive performance of great expressiveness and delight. At a personal level, there was added sentiment to sharing the stage (and a hot air balloon) with her husband, James Streeter, who brought his usual charisma to bear on the pivotal role of the magician, Drosselmeyer.
One of Eagling’s great successes lies in the challenging grand pas de deux that effectively closes the ballet, usually that of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her consort but here danced by Clara and The Nephew. It is standard fare for the man but incredibly complex for the ballerina, not least in the complex adagio being followed by a lactate-sapping variation, which is even more demanding given the brevity of the male variation that precedes it, allowing the ballerina only seconds to rest between these gargantuan challenges. Her three-minute variation is then full of complicated, long and technically-demanding step combinations flowing straight into multiple fouettés. Takahashi accomplished this extreme feat without betraying the superhuman effort that it required. Through the adagio and coda, she was nobly supported by Francesco Gabriele Frola (as the Nephew) with secure partnering.
The title role in Eagling’s production is played by a dancer who is anonymous until the curtain call and here it was Skyler Martin who made light work of dancing in that cumbersome mask. The Mouse King (Daniel Kraus) and his army are, of course, similarly covered up in Peter Farmer’s Elizabethan-themed grey outfits, their horror-film scariness offset by a strong degree of bum-wiggling farce – especially in the comedic battle where giant mousetraps wearily catapult cheese and cannonballs dribble unthreateningly from the mouths of toy artillery. Farmer’s angled design for the front elevation of the townhouse, framed by a frozen pond for skaters – presents an ideal evocation of the season.
The corps de ballet swirled around with an arresting elegance in their crystalline tutus as if a disciplined flurry of snowflakes caught in the winter breeze. Isabelle Brouwers and Precious Adams were delightful Lead Snowflakes and Adams returned to similar strong impact, with Tiffany Hedman, to front the Flowers. A host of soloist opportunities are provided by Drosselmeyer’s puppet show (formerly known as the sweet realm) and many dancers rose to these challenges with appropriate virtuosity (Daniel McCormick and Ken Saruhashi); expressiveness (Fabian Reimair and Francesca Velicu); and elegance (Alison McWhinney in the Mirliton duet with Streeter). Much credit must also go to the legion of child performers.
Tired though this production may seem (especially to those of us experiencing it for the tenth successive season) there can be no doubt that the ENB tradition still continues to enchant and enthral all those to whom Christmas is that special time; and that this company remains in very strong form.