United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker: Dancers of English National Ballet, Choir of Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, Orchestra of English National Ballet / Benjamin Pope. (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 12.12.2012. (JPr)
Nothing welcomes us to the fact that it is Christmas otherwise than hearing John Lennon, Slade and the incomparable Bing Crosby singing their Christmas songs, the sight of soap and reality TV ‘stars’ on our screens promoting their pantomimes … or the thought that it will soon be time for The Nutcracker once again.
ETA Hoffmann’s original 1816 tale (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) is a typically complex one including a cursed prince as well as the clockmaker, Drosselmeyer’s own nephew being turned into nutcrackers and the quest for a cure. Here, as in many versions, Wayne Eagling dispenses with all of this and concentrates on Clara, who represents the girl in the story who is belated caught up in Drosselmeyer’s quest. In Hoffman’s story she swears she will love him despite his hideous looks, so breaking the curse on the nephew and making him handsome again.
What we are left with as in most Nutcrackers is Clara enjoying her 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 prepubescent thoughts of adult love in the young girl. The most significant moment is when Clara dances with the handsome young man and later that night dreams about him, confusing him the toy she has been given. This was very well presented in Eagling’s staging with the Nephew and Nutcracker swapping during their trio in the Land of Snow. She then sets off in a balloon with the Nephew on a series of adventures based on the puppet theatre that Drosselmeyer entertained the guests with earlier. Act II opens with a number of exotic dances and then the evil Mouse King, who has been their constant pursuer, is overcome. 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.
Eagling suggests he is exploring ‘some of the darker more sinister corners of The Nutcracker story’ but this is difficult when – as a dance company facing Arts Council cutbacks – a guaranteed box-office winner is needed. This sugary confection 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! For young children it must enchant them and be neither too scary nor boring. Eagling’s version of ‘Clara’s Dream’ has her brother, shown grown-up, as a male slave during the Act II Arabian Dance and this seems rather disturbing for adults in 2012. The Mouse King with a skull head piece who flourishes his sword with sinister intent is eventually swiftly dispatched at the back of stage almost as an afterthought. Also in the modern age of special effects in the cinema and TV even the most innocent onlookers are unlikely to be stunned by designer Peter Farmer’s wobbling growing Christmas tree or the two-dimensional balloon at the end of Act I. The backstage apoplexy the latter’s non-appearance on one occasion caused was so memorably consigned to history by the BBC documentary Agony and Ecstasy: A Year of English National Ballet a couple of years ago.
So we are basically left with a teen romance with just a few remaining fragments of Hoffman and a delightful Edwardian setting. It is a production that is only two years old but seems much older and – money permitting – I wonder how long it will last under Tamara Rojo’s new leadership. As the evening went on I was won over by the production’s overall charm; by the spell cast by the magnificent dancing of all on stage from the youngest student to the more senior Lead Principals and finally, some of the most perfect playing of Tchaikovsky’s score – alternatively saccharine or music box-like – that I am ever likely to hear by the ENB’s own orchestra under Benjamin Pope, who accompanied his dancers with exemplary care.
For me the story does take too long to get going, the early ‘White Christmas’ inspired sequence when the party guests arrive on sledges and skates amid softly falling snow goes go on rather too long but once the dance starts nearly all is forgiven. I felt very sorry during Act I for the absolutely excellent, skilled and very enthusiastic dancers from Tring Park School or the English Ballet School that they didn’t get a pause in the music where they could get some applause or even an interval curtain call, their contribution thoroughly deserved something – especially a couple of them that seemed only a little over a metre tall!
Annabelle Sanders and James Lovell caught the eye as the child Clara and her brother Freddie. In the very best sense, James Forbat was rather wooden as the Nutcracker; Fabian Reimair was the avuncular Drosselmeyer and James Streeter as a not-so-villainous Mouse King, a bit like a rodent Captain Hook. There were some delightful whirling Snowflakes and the Act II divertissements were especially well done with Shiori Kase shining in the Chinese Dance.
The lasting memory of this performance was the opportunity to see Vadim Muntagirov and Daria Klimentová – English National Ballet’s stunning ‘spring-autumn’ partnership – excelling themselves once again in their grand pas de deux. Muntagirov, promoted after the performance to Lead Principal, is a caring, generous partner and an accomplished virtuoso, while Klimentová’s dancing has a tender fragility allied to an impeccable precision and assured technique. Muntagirov’s solos have a youthful exuberance that will surely have more of a ‘Wow’ factor in coming years but when dancing together they are virtually irresistible and imbue an onlooker with genuine Christmas spirit.