398 and Little Sign of Ageing

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker: Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Koen Kessels (conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 25.11.2011. (GR)


Choreography Peter Wright, Lev Ivanov, Vincent Redmon
Design John F Macfarlane
Lighting David A Finn


Principal Characters/Dancers: The Sugar Plum Fairy Nao Sakuma
The Prince: Jamie Bond
Drosselmeyer: Robert Parker
Clara Carol: Anne Millar

The Nutcracker: King Rat (c) Bill Cooper

The opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s traditional pre-Christmas ballet is always a special occasion and this one on Nov 25th at the Birmingham Hippodrome proved to be no exception. By drawing attention to two anniversaries, the introduction of Director David Bintley made it particularly significant. This season BRB commemorate the 21st year of the landmark Peter Wright production. The iconic choreographer Sir Peter, now the company’s Director Laureate, was in the auditorium to join in the celebrations of performance No 398 with Midland balletomanes. At 85, and still going strong – like his Nutcracker, Wright originally created the production in 1990 to thank the city of Birmingham for its support and generosity towards the company following their move from Sadler’s Wells. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia led the audience in a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday.

Adapted from ETA Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker has inspired many choreographers, but what makes the Wright account of the fairytale classic so appealing is the simple but explicit way he unfolds the story of Clara’s adventures with her Nutcracker doll, Rat King and the Sugar Plum Fairy, making it genuine family entertainment. This was not only down to Tchaikovsky’s tuneful score and the stage actions, but also to the ingenious sets and over 200 dazzling costumes of John Macfarlane plus the diverse lighting effects of David A Finn.

There was much to admire. In the cosy atmosphere of the opening Christmas Eve party scene the carefree personality of Clara immediately came across: with her blond hair bouncing away Carol-Anne Millar was bonny and enchanting. All the guests joined in with the Stahlbaum family festivities: stalwart David Morse as Grandpapa and Assistant Director Marion Tait as Grandmamma played delightful cameo roles. Robert Parker as Drosselmeyer the eccentric magician, invited to entertain the children was up to his usual party tricks (several of them trade secrets) before presenting a beautiful wooden Nutcracker doll to Clara. When broken into two pieces by younger brother Fritz – a suitably brattish portrayal by Henry Brereton – it becomes whole before the audience’s very eyes.

The party over and the family retired, Clara sneaked downstairs at midnight to play with her favourite new toy, the Nutcracker doll, and the transformation scene began. In the ever-splendid BRB programme Macfarlane reveals how he engineered the growing of the Christmas tree from 4 to 15 metres, basically down to cleverly designed construction frames and multiple hands. Likewise and even more impressive was the enlargement of the fireplace to fill the right half of the stage. From this Tyrone Singleton stunningly emerged as King Rat. The sabre rattling between the rats and the army of toy soldiers was intricately staged and down to Vincent Redmon.

After saving her beloved Nutcracker from the King of the Rats, another seamless scene change saw Clara’s dream transported into the captivating Land of Snow. The to and fro movement of the female members of the BRB corps de ballet to replicate the snowflakes was remarkable, so close to one another and yet like the real thing, devoid of clashes. The ‘Snowflakes’ led by Jenna Roberts, had the visible parts of their bodies coated in special silver body paint, such was the production’s attention to detail.

As Clara’s magical mystery tour continued in Act II, a flying goose transported her across the stage. This was traditional, but perhaps because it was first night the passage did not seem as smooth as it might have been. Escort Drosselmeyer continued Clara’s fantasy trip in Technicolor surroundings. After the Rat King had been securely caged, the magician began to show Clara the variation in cultures around the world. The opening divertissement saw Laëtitia La Sardo lead the Spanish Dance followed by Victoria Marr with the Arabian Dance. Clara joined Jonathan Caguioa and Nathanael Skelton in the Chinese Dance, before some more merriment Cossack-style, Matthew Astley, James Barton and Fergus Campbell timing their finish to perfection. Carol-Anne Millar showed little sign of tiring as she led the Mirlitons in their ‘commercial’ number. Céline Gittens was the Rose Fairy in a superb Waltz of the Flowers. Clara’s final treat from Drosselmeyer was to see her potential as a student-dancer realised in the Variation and Grand pas de deux by Principals Nao Sakuma and Jamie Bond, this item to the original choreograph of Lev Ivanov.

When Clara woke up on Christmas morning at the foot of the Christmas tree, she was left with memories that would stay with her forever, as the memory of this spectacular production stays with everyone who sees it. The Nutcracker continues at the Birmingham until Dec 11th with matinee and evening performances. It then heads to London for six additional shows at the O2.

Geoff Read