After half a century Scottish Ballet’s The Nutcracker still has a lot to recommend it

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scottish Ballet’s The Nutcracker: Dancers of Scottish Ballet, Scottish Ballet Orchestra / Jean-Claude Picard (conductor). Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 10.12.2021. (SRT)

Andrew Peasgood (Nutcracker Prince) and Constance Devernay (Sugar Plum Fairy)

Choreography – Peter Darrell
Set and Costume Design – Lez Brotherston
Lighting Designer – George Thompson

Cast included:
The Nutcracker Prince – Andrew Peasgood
The Sugar Plum Fairy – Constance Devernay
The Snow Queen – Sophie Martin
Drosselmeyer – Madeline Squire

When Tchaikovsky wrote his score for The Nutcracker in 1892, there can have been few if any members of his St Petersburg audience who had ever met someone from China or Arabia, let alone been there themselves, so when the composer wrote his ‘national dances’ for the second act divertissement he relied on musical stereotypes like languid strings or fluttering flutes (or, of course, castanets for Spain).

Times have changed, though, and they have changed even since Scottish Ballet’s classic Nutcracker first saw the light of day in 1972 so, for 2021, Artistic Director Christopher Hampson (further to his reimagining the original in 2014) grasped the nettle of those national dances by removing the Manchu pony tails and Fu Manchu moustaches from the Chinese Dance. He also had Drosselmeyer played by a woman, because why not?!

Those two things grabbed all the headlines in advance of the show’s current revival, but to focus on them isn’t fair on the integrity of the show as a whole. The Chinese Dance (Noa Barry and Urara Takata) is very well done, with delicate wrist and neck movements that made me think of Peking Opera, but it is only seventy seconds of music, so it’s hardly worth pinning the show on. Furthermore, if it hadn’t been so heavily trailed then I doubt I would even have noticed that Drosselmeyer was danced by a woman, because Madeline Squire approached it with flamboyance and flair in a way that suggested the role might as well have been designed especially for her. You don’t have to be a man to do some magic, after all, whether it’s dreamt or real.

A show like this doesn’t last for fifty years without having a lot to recommend it. The beauty of this Nutcracker, created by Scottish Ballet’s founding Artistic Director, Peter Darrell, is the clarity of its storytelling, combined with the beauty of its visuals. It is a rare example of a ballet where you can go in knowing nothing of the story and still following the story perfectly. It is clear who are the parents and who are the guests, it is obvious that the Prince is the toy transformed, and it is heavily hinted that Clara (Abby Wallace) dreams the whole of the second act. That in itself makes it a joy to watch, as does the classical simplicity of its sets. A series of arches frames each scene, with Act II featuring nothing more than a huge curtain of Christmas baubles, and the drawing room for the first scene in the house is quietly luxurious. The biggest ‘Wow!’ moment comes at the entry into the pine forest and the Waltz of the Snowflakes, which takes place against a gorgeous blue-white background, and features a beautifully shaped Pas de deux for the Prince and the Snowflake Queen.

I particularly enjoyed the Arabian Dance (though also changed for this revival): taken, unusually, by a single female dancer, and which Aisling Brangan turned into something uncommonly seductive with her gently flowing movements. The majority of Darrell’s dances have aged well, which is why it’s unfair for the Chinese Dance to grab all the headlines. The big corps numbers flowed effectively, particularly the end of Act I, but the highlight came where it should, with a superb Pas de deux for the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the second act. Andrew Peasgood and Constance Devernay flowed as one, mirroring and leading one another in a way that matched the music beautifully. I didn’t love the clowns of the Trepak, but maybe that is because I am an old grump.

Jean-Claude Picard, the company’s Music Director, shaped the score for the benefit of the dancers, though the brittle acoustic of the Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre never does an orchestra many favours. I have heard the score far more times than I have seen the ballet, so lots of his tempi seemed slow to me, particularly for the several duets. I would have loved to have heard what the orchestra would have done with the score if they had been let off the leash, but Picard at least understands the music’s place in a ballet, and that’s to his credit.

So, Hampson has done a good job with this revival, but the cultural and gender sensitivities are only a small part of the package. Scottish Ballet’s The Nutcracker is still managing to deliver some festive warmth after five decades, and that by itself is surely worth a pat on somebody’s back.

Simon Thompson

Leave a Comment