United KingdomTchaikovsky, The Nutcracker: Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Koen Kessels (conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 27.11.2015 (GR).
The Sugar Plum Fairy: Nao Sakuma
The Prince: Mathias Dingman
Drosselmeyer, a magician: Rory Mackay
Clara, a ballet student: Arancha Baselga
Choreography: Peter Wright, Lev Ivanov, Vincent Redmon
Design: John F Macfarlane
Lighting: David A Finn
This year the opening of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s traditional pre-Christmas fayre of The Nutcracker fell upon Nov 27th, the day following Thanksgiving, designated Black Friday, supposedly full of its shopping bargains. Show-wise, the best deal in town is now on at the Birmingham Hippodrome, a family show par excellence. The BRB run of twenty-one performances continues until Dec 13th and appropriately began to a packed audience of Midland balletomanes of all ages with a matinee. BRB have something to celebrate too: the acclaimed choreography of Sir Peter Wright to the enchanting music of Tchaikovsky was his gift to the city of Birmingham in 1990 and this year commemorates its silver anniversary. It is a classic production that has captured the hearts and imaginations of generations of theatregoers, the perfect curtain-raiser to the festive season. By my reckoning this was No 473. It was right royal entertainment – the programme containing a welcome from the BRB President, HRH The Prince of Wales.
Adapted from ETA Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker has inspired many choreographers, but what makes the Wright account of the fairy tale classic so appealing is the simple but explicit way he unfolds the story of Clara’s adventures, along with her Nutcracker doll, Rat King and the Sugar Plum Fairy to name but a few. This is not only down to the Russian composer’s 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; so intricate is the display that it requires three days to install and two days for technical and stage rehearsals.
There is much to admire. In the cosy atmosphere of the opening Christmas Eve party scene the carefree personality of Clara immediately came across: Arancha Baselga was radiant and bonny, also demonstrating that the dancing lessons of her character were paying dividends. All the guests joined in with the Stahlbaum family festivities – stalwart Michael O’Hare as Grandpapa and Jade Heusen as Grandmamma played delightful cameo roles, while Yijing Zhang as Clara’s Mother was a dazzling hostess with the mostess. Rory Mackay as Drosselmeyer the eccentric magician, entertained the charming selection of youngsters – Junior Associates of BRB and Elmshurst School for Dance students – with 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 sailor-suited Kyle Mills – it miraculously becomes whole before the audience’s very eyes.
The party over and the family retired, Clara sneaks downstairs at midnight to play with her favourite new toy, the Nutcracker doll, and at the bewitching hour the scene spectacularly transforms. 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 stage-hands. Likewise a giant fireplace fills the right half of the stage, from which Brandon Lawrence stunningly emerged as King Rat. The sabre rattling between the rats and the army of toy soldiers was intricately staged, movement devised by Vincent Redmon.
After saving her beloved Nutcracker from the King of the Rats, more seamless scene changes occur and Clara’s dream transports her into a 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 yet devoid of clashes and epitomising the real thing. The ‘Flakes’ (led on this occasion by Yvette Knight as a sparkling Snow Fairy) had the visible parts of their bodies coated in special silver body paint, such is the production’s attention to detail.
Clara’s magical mystery tour continues in Act II, a flying goose transporting her across the stage. Escort Drosselmeyer continues Clara’s fantasy trip in glorious Technicolor surroundings. After the Rat King has been securely caged, the magician begins to exhibit the variation in cultures around the world. The pick of these divertissements was the intoxicating Yijing Zhang in the Arabian Dance, ably supported by the macho Brandon Lawrence, Luke Schaufuss and Edivaldo Souza da Silva. Baselga joined in with James Barton and Kit Holder in the Chinese Dance, before some more merriment emerged Cossack-style from Fergus Campbell, Mitsuru Ito and Lorenzo Trossello, timing their finish to perfection. The Mirlitons inspired a generous round of applause in their ‘commercial’ number. Beatrice Parma, a new name to me, was entrusted with the role of the Rose Fairy and led a dazzling Waltz of the Flowers. Clara’s final treat from Drosselmeyer is to see her potential as a student-dancer realised in shape of Nao Sakuma as the Sugar Plum Fairy, partnered here by Mathias Dingman in the Variation and Grand pas de deux, this item to the original choreography of Lev Ivanov.
When Clara wakes up on Christmas morning at the foot of the Christmas tree, she was left with reminiscences that would stay with her forever, as the memory of this spectacular production stays with everyone who sees it.