English National Ballet’s Nutcracker Continues to Cast its Magical Spell

17/12/2015

Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker: Dancers of English National Ballet, Students from the English Ballet School, Supplemented Choir from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and English National Ballet Philharmonic/Gavin Sutherland (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 16.12.2015. (JPr)

Nutcracker

Shiori Kase as Clara and Cesar Corrales as Nephew with James Streeter as the Mouse King
(c) Laurent Liotardo

Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker

Principal Dancers:

Clara – Shiori Kase

Nephew – Cesar Corrales

Nutcracker – James Forbat

Drosselmeyer – Fabian Reimair

Mouse King – James Streeter

‘It’s Christmas!’ No, it’s not the first hearing of that annoying but fun Slade song but the reappearance of English National Ballet and Nutcracker at the London Coliseum. They were beaten to it by Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker which had begun its run over a week earlier and also had a cinema transmission the very same night as this first performance by its rival – and let’s be honest, probably now better – London ballet company. There seems no limit on how many times Nutcracker can be put on at this time of year.

E T A Hoffmann’s original 1816 tale (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) is a typically convoluted one including a cursed prince, a seven-headed Mouse King, as well as, the clockmaker, Drosselmeyer’s own nephew being turned into a nutcracker and the quest for a cure. Here, as in many versions, Wayne Eagling dispenses with much of this and focusses on Clara, who represents the girl in the story (Marie) who is belated caught up in Drosselmeyer’s quest. In Hoffmann’s story by swearing that were the nutcracker to be real she would love him regardless of what he looked like, she breaks the curse on the nephew, making him human again and handsome.

Toer van Schayk and Wayne Eagling’s concept for their Nutcracker has Clara enjoying a Christmas party with her parents and friends and it is the arrival of Drosselmeyer’s nephew – rather than the gift of the nutcracker doll – that changes everything and stirs romantic thoughts in the prepubescent girl. The pivotal moment is when Clara dances with the handsome stranger and later that night dreams about him, confusing him with the toy she has been given. This is very well presented in this staging with the Nephew and Nutcracker swapping roles during their trio in the Land of Snow. After a battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Clara escapes by setting off in a balloon with the Nephew for some adventures in an imaginary land based on the puppet theatre that Drosselmeyer entertained the party guests with earlier. Act II opens with a number of exotic dances and then the evil Mouse King, who has pursued them is defeated. With the puppet master’s collusion, Clara is transformed into a beautiful ballerina (the Sugar Plum Fairy); the nephew into her handsome Prince and the setting becomes a beautiful garden. Finally, the young girl wakes up in her own bedroom.

What we get is basically a teen romance with just a few remaining fragments of Hoffmann and a delightful Edwardian setting from designer Peter Farmer. Wayne Eagling suggested he was seeking to explore some ‘darker’ elements in the story but there is only so far you can go when a dance company like English National Ballet needs a guaranteed box-office winner to help it fund its more ambitious projects throughout the rest of the year. A typically magical and ‘sugar-coated’ Nutcracker is often a child’s first ballet in a proper major theatre,  as it was for me back in 1977 when in Rudolf Nureyev’s own production for Royal Ballet I saw him typically perform both Drosselmeyer and the Prince! So young children must simply be enchanted and neither scared nor bored. The Mouse King with a skull-like head piece who flourishes his sword with evil intent is eventually swiftly dispatched at the back of stage almost as an afterthought to avoid frightening the little ones. (Am I correct in recalling how at one time Clara’s brother, Freddie, was shown grown-up, as a male slave during the Act II Arabian Dance? Thankfully this has been dispensed with.) In an age when there is almost nothing seen in the cinema and on TV which doesn’t involve special effects of some sort it is refreshingly old-fashioned to see this Nutcracker’s growing Christmas tree and the two-dimensional balloon at the end of Act I.

The production was first seen in 2010 and seems be getting better and better as the years pass. I have to repeat my admiration for all Tamara Rojo is achieving with English National Ballet. Even with the rival The Nutcracker on in the cinema there is nowhere I would have rather been than at the London Coliseum. Truthfully, this version of Nutcracker takes some while to get going during the initial White Christmas-inspired sequence as party guests arrive on sledges and skates but once the dance starts all is forgiven. As the evening went on I was totally entranced again by its overall charm and the spell cast by the near-perfection of the dancing of all on stage from the youngest student, those in the corps de ballet, to the more senior dancers. Also once again there was some outstanding playing of Tchaikovsky’s familiar score – alternatively suitably saccharine or music box-like – from the English National Ballet Philharmonic under Gavin Sutherland who always accompanied his dancers with great care without indulging them. In fact, this performance was about 10 minutes shorter than the advertised running time.

I always feel very sorry during Act I for the absolutely excellent, well-schooled and very committed young dancers from Tring Park School or the English Ballet School who never get a pause in the music for some applause or their own interval curtain call, because the excellence of their contribution thoroughly deserves something. Throughout, Cheryl Heung and William Darby were wonderfully natural as Clara and Freddie as children.

By saying James Forbat repeated his rather wooden Nutcracker is meant entirely as a compliment. Also back were Fabian Reimair as a kind and friendly Drosselmeyer and James Streeter as a not-too-threatening Mouse King, rather like a rodent-version of Captain Hook. There were some delightful whirling Snowflakes lead by Laurretta Summerscales and Alison McWhinney, the corps de ballet moving here – as in the Waltz of the Flowers – in total unison without a merest hint of a wobble. The Act II divertissements were especially well done with Ksenia Ovsyanick shining as a Mirliton and the eye-catching Yonah Acosta making the tour en l’air sequences of the Russian dance look easy – which of course they are not. These dancers are two of ENB’s finest prospects.

If this production’s narrative progression leaves a lot to be desired it is the performances of all the dancers that brings this Nutcracker alive. Tamara Rojo’s great faith in her company is shown by assigning the central performances on this opening night to First Soloist Shiori Kase as the grown-up Clara, and Soloist Cesar Corrales debuting as the Nephew. They did not let her down! Kase’s dancing was fleet-footed, precise and clean with every step oozing quality: her appealing tender fragility reminded me of her famous compatriot Miyako Yoshida whom I saw dance the Sugar Plum Fairy several times. What a prospect Cesar Corrales is even if though he is still a bit raw at the moment. He partnered Kase wonderfully and his leaps and spins were very impressive and his solos had the ’Wow’ factor I am always seeking from a male dancer.

With ENB’s exhilarating Le Corsaire being revived at the London Coliseum in January and Akram Khan’s new Giselle on the horizon the company’s inexorable rise continues.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the English National Ballet’s forthcoming performances www.ballet.org.uk.

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