United Kingdom Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker: Dancers of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Koen Kessels (conductor), The O2 Arena, London 27.12.2011. (JPr)
It was 1891 that the choreographer, Marius Petipa, commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose the music for Alexandre Dumas’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Although what is seen on the stage today differs somewhat from the original story, the basic plot remains the same and centres on a young German girl and her coming-of-age one Christmas Eve when she dreams of a Nutcracker Prince and a fierce battle against a Mouse King with seven heads. Its first performance in 1892 was a disaster as both the critics and the audience disliked it. Since then, The Nutcracker has become the most widely performed ballet in the world mainly because of George Balanchine’s new production in 1954 and his choreography breathed new life into the ballet and captured the imagination of its audiences.
The familiarly magnificent Tchaikovsky score is unchanging so it is left to the production and the dancing to make any return to The Nutcracker a special event. I can imagine in its more natural home at the Birmingham Hippodrome that the Act I transformation scene – where the Stahlbaum family’s drawing room transforms with the music, until Clara is dwarfed by a huge Christmas tree and an oversized chimneypiece that spews out piratical rodents – must be something especially memorable. BRB’s director, David Bintley, told me that John F. Macfarlane’s original sets had been ‘expanded’ for The O2 arena but – truth be told – they were somewhat dwarfed themselves by the functional barn-like venue. Mostly this did not matter but in this instance it definitely did. I must credit Peter Teigen’s specially created lighting effects for doing at The O2 exactly what it said in the programme they would and ‘create that enchanted darkness and carry us from moonlight to fiery battle to wintry dawn to the rosy blaze of Act II’s ballroom’.
This captivating version by Sir Peter Wright (who is 85 years young) comes of age in its own way during this short run at The O2 since it was created in 1990 to mark the BRB’s arrival in Birmingham. Here broadly following the original 1892 ballet and choreographing it in a grand late-nineteenth century style whilst retaining some of Lev Ivanov’s original steps he gets pretty much everything exactly right from the clear telling of the story to the Snowflakes’ gorgeous crystal-like shapes. Apparently the late-Victorian ‘look’ of Act I was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander and the costumes, along with the red, black and gold décor’s faded opulence, imbues the proceedings with its own sense of melancholy and nostalgia.
The Nutcracker needs to enchant its audience and involve them in Clara’s dream; this is not a problem in Act I with the Christmas party and all the magical goings-on but it needs something special if Act II doesn’t just come across as a series of exhibition pieces side-lining Clara. Here, in a basically Freudian-free production, Peter Wright keeps his heroine very much at the centre of our attention as she helps to defeat King Rat (Tyrone Singleton), dances with her Nutcracker Prince and then joins in the divertissements simply because it is her dream – and who isn’t involved in what goes on in their own dreams? Laëtitia Lo Sardo seemed ideal casting as a pubescent young girl at the watershed of innocence and burgeoning adult emotion. She totally involves us in her character’s story from her girlish interactions with her family – especially her annoying younger brother – and suitably yields to passion when in the arms of her Prince. She interacted well with Robert Parker’s superb Drosselmeyer, here more a swirling genial master-of-ceremonies than sinister magician. Though magic there is a-plenty, from reuniting the head of the Nutcracker doll with the rest of it (the impact of which was somewhat lost on this occasion) to characters emerging from his voluminous cloak. He summons a magnificent goose to fly Clara to her Act II dreamworld. Mention must also be made of James Barton who caught the eye as Drosselmeyer’s charismatic assistant.
Act II confirmed the tremendous form BRB is showing these days and this Nutcracker has too many strong individual performances to list them all. I must particularly mention Carol-Anne Millar who was an assured Snow Fairy and Victoria Marr’s languorous Arabian Dance. But perhaps in the twenty-first century there could be a re-imagining of the comedy Chinese Dance that was rather non-PC and more appropriate to Aladdin. All the dancers appeared to revel in the extra space the huge O2 gave them to extend their legs and give emphasis to their jetés that made them seem more of a Russian company than a British one. It is a credit to BRB’s superb preparation that only very occasionally on the big dance space did anyone look as though they were skipping to the next piece of choreography.
With less talented dancers the grand pas de deux can be a little mechanical but not here with César Morales’ Prince and Nao Sakuma’s Sugar Plum Fairy and it was a brilliantly-executed summation of all that had gone before. Sakuma was suitably pure, sparkly and radiant but Morales was more smouldering and full of rampant muscular athleticism than I am used to recently from male dancers in British companies.
Playing a full part in the success of the evening was the magnificent accompaniment by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia’s under Koen Kessels who even in these amplified circumstances seemed to do Tchaikovsky proud.
I don’t think I am ever to feel “nuttier” than this festive season as I have just returned from touring some south-west states of Americas, and as people will know major cities and towns are few and far between but assuming they had a performing space big enough, everyone seemed to be offering a staging of The Nutcracker – evidence of its enduring popularity. With performances in London already underway at Covent Garden, London Coliseum and Sadler’s Wells, Birmingham Royal Ballet arrived late at The O2 for four days of this arena-style version of Sir Peter Wright’s superlative production. In general – for me in a fairly good seat near the front – it was a great success and a very enjoyable evening but left me wondering just why The Nutcracker is so popular at this time of year and why no one has come up with anything new to challenge it? Also – and more unfortunately – many in The O2 will have sat a lot further from the stage than I did and I wonder – despite a big screen transmitting the action – whether they will have felt their money well spent; seats were not that cheap for families and programmes cost a ridiculous £10. It seems to have been a hard job to sell tickets for these performances as there were many empty seats in the arena that was only being used at two-thirds of its full capacity anyway. Probably because the enterprise got some much-needed sponsorship from Universal Music, at the start of the evening there were three songs from Joe McElderry’s new Classic Christmas CD – this recent winner of ITV’s Popstar to Operastar is one of their artists. The least said about this the better – it is not the talented McElderry’s fault that he was sent on by his advisors with the dress and demeanour of a technician about to test the microphone and why wasn’t he told to engage the audience in joining in the carols when we all knew the words. It is not surprising that young performers who could become ‘stars’ sink into relatively quick obscurity when they are so poorly managed.
For further details for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s forthcoming performances visit www.brb.org.uk.
Geoff Read’s review of the premiere of BRB’s Nutcracker at Birmingham on November 25th is also available on this website.