English National Ballet’s Nutcracker Casts a Truly Magical Spell

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker: Dancers of English National Ballet, Students from Tring Park School and the English Ballet School, English National Ballet Philharmonic / Gavin Sutherland (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 15.12.206. (JPr)

Alina Cojocaru and Cesar Corrales in ENB’s Nutcracker
(c) Laurent Liotardo

Choreography – Wayne Eagling
Designs – Peter Farmer
Lighting – David Richardson

Principal Dancers:
Clara – Alina Cojocaru
Nephew – Cesar Corrales
Nutcracker – James Forbat
Drosselmeyer – Fabian Reimair
Mouse King – James Streeter

The night after I saw The Red Shoes (review) came English National Ballet’s Nutcracker; this is a genuine fairy tale ballet which Matthew Bourne’s show wasn’t. From the full house it appeared to attract for this performance it hopefully remains ENB’s guaranteed end-of-year money-maker which can support more of their innovative programming – such as Akram Khan’s recent Giselle (review) – under the inspired leadership of their artistic director Tamara Rojo. Anyway, apart from a trip to a pantomime, nothing says Christmas more than a night out at this particular ballet.

Nutcracker 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 plot remains basically 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 based it on a version by Alexander Dumas.

Traditionally it starts with Clara’s family hosting a party for family and friends on Christmas Eve in their grand home. 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 somewhat of a magician and he also entertains the children with his puppet theatre. The children begin to open their presents and Drosselmeyer gives Clara a beautiful nutcracker which she adores but – boys being boys – a jealous Freddie breaks it. Drosselmeyer magically repairs it and 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 morph into Drosselmeyer’s nephew.

Clara, the nephew and Drosselmeyer escape in a balloon (with the Mouse King clinging on) and land – for some reason – inside a huge version of the puppet theatre. (Don’t think too much about the plot but just sit back and enjoy the spectacle.) The Mouse King is finally vanquished and Drosselmeyer orchestrates the celebratory dances (Spanish Dance, Arabian Dance, Russian Dance, Mirliton Dance, Chinese Dance and Waltz of Flowers) and as a finale, Clara (as the Sugar Plum Fairy) 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 at the party and later dreams about him, confusing him with the toy she has been given. From the dancing point of view Eagling has combined two female roles into one, the innocent Clara and the more sophisticated and womanly Sugar Plum Fairy; while at the same time splitting the male roles into two with separate dancers as the Nutcracker doll and the Nephew (who also becomes the Prince). This was very well presented in Eagling’s staging with the Nephew and Nutcracker swapping (more seamlessly than I remember before) during their trio in ‘The Land of Snow’.

When his production was new Eagling suggested he was exploring ‘some of the darker more sinister corners of The Nutcracker story’. Much as The Red Shoes should have been a much darker tale when put on stage, there must be an artistic compromise when a box-office winner is needed. The buzz of excitement in the audience suggested that there might have been several there who were new to a night at the ballet and – particularly if they are young children – what they see cannot be too frightening or boring. Basically, we are shown a teen romance with a few allusions to Hoffmann in Peter Farmer’s quaint or magical settings. It still takes a little time to get going but this didn’t seem to matter so much as it has before. I had the good fortune to be sitting closer to the stage than I must have in the past. This made me appreciate how even the most minor background character in the large cast involved at the party – whether children or adults – was given something to do rather than just standing idly by.

If you haven’t seen this Nutcracker – and even if you have and believe you don’t need to go again – do go, because the company seem to be performing better and better every time I watch them. They have been so good recently that I could not conceive this could be possible, yet their joy of performing, as well as, committed and exuberant dancing totally won me over once again. Especially, it was the technical accomplishment and theatricality of some of the dancing – whether corps de ballet or individually – which left me open mouthed in awe at times. A truly magical spell was cast by everyone from the youngest students (Sophia Mucha and Euan Garrett 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 his usual accomplished ease.

Hidden behind a mask he wore throughout James Forbat was – in the very best meaning of the phrase – a wonderfully wooden Nutcracker; Fabian Reimair again oozed a quirky charm and benevolence as 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 ebullient moments from Adela Ramírez, Crystal Costa and Vitor Menezes (Spanish Dance) and Katja Khaniukova, Grant Rae and Joshua McSherry-Gray (Chinese Dance). Pedro Lapetra enjoyed himself immensely during the rumbustious Russian Dance and Laurretta Summerscales was as impressive as ever when dancing Clara’s big sister Louise and one of Mirlitons. The corps de ballet must also be commended for their remarkable synchronicity and often dazzling dancing.

The abiding memory of this performance will concern the outstanding partnership of Alina Cojocaru and Cesar Corrales during their exquisite grand pas de deux which I might have seen equalled, but never – as far as I can recall – betteredAs the Nephew/ardent Prince, Corrales has little to do except partner and present Clara/Sugar Plum Fairy as best as possible and this he does with great aplomb, tenderness and care. His own solos were bold, explosive and full of bravura and I cannot hold off from using an ‘N’ word – Nureyev! I probably have a coffee mug older than some ballet critics I have met recently but I saw Nureyev dance many times and there are already fledging hints of that great Russian’s magnetism and pantherine grace in Corrales’s dancing. Alina Cojocaru was equally remarkable and was a very believable young girl. She is a truly great dancer and not for once did I see a step or gesture from her that was anything less than instinctive and she was endearingly expressive throughout and all she did was an object lesson in musicality, impeccable technique, and stagecraft.

Jim Pritchard

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