United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker: Dancers of English National Ballet, Students from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, Choir and Orchestra of English National Ballet / Gavin Sutherland (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 11.12.2013. (JPr)
Daria Klimentová (Clara)
Vadim Muntagirov (Nephew/Prince)
Junor Souza (Nutcracker)
Fabian Reimair (Dr Drosselmeyer)
James Streeter (Mouse King)
Choreography: Wayne Eagling
Designs: Peter Farmer
Lighting: David Richardson
On the day when there was list of ‘Pop’s Top Christmas Earners For 2013’ in the newspaper – with the reminder that Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, The Pogue’s ‘Fairytale of New York’ and Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ are amongst the top royalty earners – came the opening night of, what is hopefully English National Ballet’s guaranteed end-of-year money-maker, The Nutcracker. Apart from a trip to a pantomime, nothing says Christmas more than a night out at this ballet
It has its origins in ETA Hoffmann’s original 1816 tale (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King). Although what is seen on the stage today differs in detail, the basic plot remains the same: the story of a young German girl who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince and a fierce battle against a Mouse King. When Marius Petipa choreographed a ballet of this story he actually based it on a version by Alexander Dumas.
Traditionally it starts with Clara’s family hosting a party on Christmas Eve in their grand home for family and friends. There is always an extravagant Christmas tree and in its shadow their children, Clara and Freddie, are dancing and playing as the guests arrive. Then for this 2010 production Wayne Eagling and Toer van Schayk’s concept introduces subtle changes to the familiar plot. An old family friend Dr Drosselmeyer arrives bringing along his nephew, a handsome soldier. Sometimes Drosselmeyer might be a skilled clock and toy maker, however here he is a puppeteer and magician, yet, as always, full of surprises. He brings his puppet theatre and the puppets’ performance inspires Clara’s big sister, Louise, to dance with her three admirers. The children begin to open their gifts and Drosselmeyer gives Clara a beautiful nutcracker that becomes the hit of the party until Freddie breaks it. But Drosselmeyer magically repairs it. As the evening grows late, the guests depart and the children go to bed.
Clara has a nightmare and as the clock strikes midnight strange things begin to happen. The living room fills with an army of rats and mice, led by the fierce Mouse King. The Nutcracker becomes a dashing soldier and leads his army of toy soldiers into battle with the mice. The Mouse King corners the Nutcracker and battles him one-on-one. The Nutcracker is injured and seems to be no match for the Mouse King and he, along with his army, are captured by the mice and their King. The room is turned into ‘The Land of Snow’ and Clara dances with the Nutcracker who seems to be Drosselmeyer’s nephew.
Clara, the nephew and Dr Drosselmeyer escape in a balloon (with the Mouse King clinging on) and land – for some reason – inside a huge version of the puppet theatre. The Mouse King is finally vanquished and there are celebratory dances (Spanish Dance, Arabian Dance, Russian Dance, Mirliton Dance, Chinese Dance and Waltz of Flowers) and as a finale, the Sugar Plum Fairy (Clara) and her Prince (the Nephew) dance a beautiful pas de deux. Suddenly Clara awakens from her dream and together with Freddie waves goodbye to the departing Christmas Eve party guests.
Here it is not the gift of the nutcracker doll that changes everything but the good-looking young man that stirs prepubescent thoughts of adult love in young Clara. The most significant moment in Act I is when she dances with him and later 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. Eagling has suggested he is exploring ‘some of the darker more sinister corners of The Nutcracker story’ but this is difficult when a box-office winner is needed. The number of excited young people in the audience was proof positive that this sugary confection remains one of the first ballets in a proper major theatre that any child will see. It therefore cannot be too frightening or boring. Nevertheless 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 could be rather confusing and disturbing for the younger ones – and rather unfortunate and unnecessary for adults in 2013 given what is reported in the media every day about child abuse. In an age when even their cartoons in the cinema are 3D the large cut-out two-dimensional balloon at the end of Act I is not something that would make even the most innocent ooh! or ahh!
Worse still – even if they read my summary above or the synopsis in the programme – few in the audience of whatever age will have any clue as to what is going on as the story-telling is often very muddled as to who is who and what is happening to them. Basically, we are shown a teen romance with a few allusions to Hoffmann in a quaint Edwardian setting from Peter Farmer. Please go to see it nonetheless because the company seem to be performing better and better every time I watch them: it was their committed and exuberant dancing that won me over as the evening went on and I completely forgot about whether the story I was watching made any sense. A truly magical spell was cast by everyone from the youngest students (Michaela Infante and Matthew Cotton as the younger Clara and Freddie) to the most senior Lead Principals and no one should forget the importance of the perfectly nuanced performance of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score – neither too saccharine or tinkly (as from a music box) – by ENB’s always reliable orchestra under their music director, Gavin Sutherland, who accompanied the dancers with practised ease.
Junor Souza’s usual flamboyance was hidden behind the mask he wore throughout, yet, in the very best meaning of the phrase, he made a wonderfully wooden Nutcracker; Fabian Reimair again oozed a quirky charm and benevolence as Dr Drosselmeyer and James Streeter repeated his spirited, pantomime comedy villain, Mouse King. The Snowflakes were suitably delicate and well-drilled and the Act II divertissements were well done by all concerned with bravura moments from Yonah Acosta (Spanish Dance) and Shiori Kase (Chinese Dance). I must single out again the increasingly impressive Ksenia Ovysyanick who caught the eye as Louise, Lead Snowflake and one of Mirlitons – her dancing seems to gain more authority each time I see her.
The abiding memory of this performance was another opportunity to experience Vadim Muntagirov and Daria Klimentová performing – as few pairings can these days – a virtually perfect grand pas de deux. As the Nephew/ardent Prince, Muntagirov has little to do except partner and present Clara/the Sugar Plum Fairy as best as possible and this he does with great tenderness and care. His own solos are precise, polished, with clean lines and soft landings but with his increasingly flowing locks and slightly more muscular build, at times he seems like a caged animal waiting to be let loose. Klimentová’s exquisite dancing is wonderfully musical and tenderly fragile throughout. She retains a rock-solid technique, great fluency, fast spins – and is still is a very believable young girl. Once again I was entranced by her partnership with Muntagirov – possibly the best in Britain at the moment – and long may it continue.
For more about the English National Ballet’s forthcoming performances see www.ballet.org.uk.