With the Birmingham Hippodrome closed and the Royal Albert Hall performances cancelled in this most doom laden of years, The REP and its director, Sean Foley came together with Carlos Acosta to offer Birmingham Royal Ballet a rescue package in a re-staging of Sir Peter Wright’s beautiful production of The Nutcracker. Sir David Bintley had already reworked some of it in order to accommodate the RAH’s vast arena and now the job ahead was to re-stage it for a proscenium arch of smaller proportions. If the pandemic has shown us anything – it is that no matter what the circumstances, the arts are more resilient and resourceful than anyone could have imagined. The dance will go on!
Ross MacGibbon has done his usual superlative job of directing the filming of the production, but it was nevertheless heartbreaking to watch a live performance with absolutely zero applause. Of course the dancers rallied and rose to the challenges, but for all their hard work and expertise, the silence at the end of every dance was very harsh.
Before dwelling any further on that, the dancing was sublime; John Macfarlane’s designs are sumptuous and the teamwork of Acosta/Foley brought about very satisfying results. It is slightly shorter than usual and missing a couple of diverts but nevertheless felt like the real deal. BRB also produced a very informative digital programme which proved to be helpful in terms of the narrative. In this production, Clara’s mother is a former ballerina and Clara, a ballet student.
The Prologue can sometimes feel slow going, but not here, where the action keeps going at quite a pace. The Dolls all have different guises in Act II but perhaps the most significant one is The Sugar Plum Fairy Doll, as danced by Momoko Hirata who is also the Sugar Plum of the second act. The entire Prologue was well danced and very engaging with Jonathan Payn, a kindly Herr Drosselmeyer until the transformation scene where he seemed to undergo a momentary personality change. Karla Doorbar was a charming Clara without being overly saccharine. Max Maslen, her dancing partner in The Prologue, was excellent and Tzu-Chao Chou gave us his usual spectacular rendition of Jack-in-the-Box. The thoroughly enjoyable transformation scene harbours one of the best moments – as Clara manages to knock out The Rat King (Alexander Yap) with her pointe shoe. The following pas de deux with Doorbar and César Morales as the living, breathing Nutcracker, was filled with rapture. Morales is a dancer with the purest of classical lines and he maintains that framework during all the partnering too. Doorbar blossoms in his arms. We enter the snow scene and Alys Shee’s Snow Fairy leads her Snowflakes and Winds with an easy command. Indeed, this scene is challenging in every production but this version throws up exceedingly difficult technical challenges for everyone in it, with most impressive results.
During the interval we were treated to film footage of rehearsals and interviews, including one with Marion Tait, to whom the performance was dedicated. She retires as Assistant Director at the end of this year.
It makes sense that Act II carries on from where Act I finished, still in the snow scene. This filmed version is without a Waltz of the Flowers and even without a coda for the Grand pas de deux but as with other pared down productions, it does not take away from the overall enjoyment. Outstanding in a series of first-rate divertissements were Maslan and Chou in the Chinese and Ryan Felix, Gus Payne and Shuailun Wu in the Russian. Hirata and Morales were magical in the Grand pas de deux. She epitomises the delicacy and sheer beauty of the Sugar Plum whilst Morales is majestic, streamlined and solid as her Prince.
That BRB managed to get this on at all is a small miracle – and the undiminished determination with which the dancers attack their work inspires passion in us all. How they managed to achieve such infectious joy without a single person putting their hands together is a feat in itself. I wonder how many of us were clapping and cheering at home.