November 23, 2018
Ah, yes. The Nutcracker. That happy Christmas ballet that you can just sit back with and let it wash over you. The ballet, or at least most versions of it, has always been pretty much like that, but the story; that’s a different matter.
It’s perhaps just as well that Tchaikovsky based his ballet on Alexandre Dumas’ lightened version of Hoffman’s complex original tale, published in 1844. While it has many of the features of The Nutcracker story that we know today, the 1816 original about a German girl in a house without love (Clara is actually her favourite doll) presents a pretty bleak view of humanity. The famous battle ends with the girl seriously bloodied and being scolded by her family, who especially do not come out of it well. It does have its appealing parts but a story for children it definitely is not.
Perhaps one should also say ‘the story we think we know’, because if one thing is true, it’s that there are more takes on the it and the choreography than any other ballet. There are even Nutcracker ballets that make no mention of Christmas.
There’s nothing scary about Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker, unless you count the shiver Drosselmeyer gives when he slowly turns that chair to the chimes of midnight. The ballet definitely falls into the ‘traditional’ category. The young heroine, Clara, dreams of battles with the Mouse King, saving the Nutcracker and journeying to the Land of Sweets before she transforms into the Sugar Plum Fairy and dances the ballet’s pinnacle pas de deux. The multi-layering is still there if you dig for it. It is a tale of young love, maybe first love, so Clara is allowed to dream; and Drosselmeyer in particular is a dark, somewhat enigmatic character who straddles her real world and fantasy.
Birmingham’s Nutcracker has colour, rhythm and scale in abundance. There are the gorgeous yet rather staid and formal deep reds of the Stahlbaum’s house in Act 1; walls, drapes, ceiling, carpets, chairs, even Clara’s mother’s dress, all red. In contrast come the bright rainbow colours of the Kingdom of Sweets in Act II, not to mention the glittering Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy at the end.
Rhythm of course comes from the glorious music, but also from the way Peter Wright tells the story and keeps it moving; and in a way that makes sense. Having Drosselmeyer and Clara at the Act II dances gives the evening considerable continuity, as does the reappearance of King Rat, who has somehow followed them during the interval.
And then there’s scale. It may be a grand house, but that Christmas tree is something else. No sticking it at the back of the stage and just making in grow. Here it comes in from the side, its huge branches dominating the scene. It’s a masterpiece of staging and remains the best transformation scene anywhere.
In the big Act II pas de deux, Momoko Hirata and César Morales, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince, sparkled as much as her tutu and his tunic. They find so much time in the music. There are moments when Hirata in particular seems to hang, suspended in mid air. Gorgeous.
But The Nutcracker is Clara’s story, and it’s on her that the ballet depends largely. Karla Doorbar continues to pull of the trick of acting a teenager and making it believable, something that’s as much about body language as face. And that face is a picture as it lights up again and again as the Act II treats come one after the other. Back in Act I, her post-battle pas de deux with the Nutcracker is a highlight, a duet full of soaring lifts and unconfined turns that suggest an awakening of love. You can just imagine her heart going a thousand to the minute.
Elsewhere, Samara Downs was a particularly frosty Snow Fairy, all cut glass precision but icy enough to send a chill down the spine. At the other end of the scale, Céline Gittens radiated warmth and sunshine as the Rose Fairy in the big waltz. I do wish Wright or someone would rework that Chinese Dance, though, which is uncomfortable and not at all funny.
Traditional Nutcracker ballets tend to one of two endings: the homespun, almost cute one where Clara wakes up from her dream and is back home, and the more tear-jerking, open-ended one where she and the Nutcracker fly off to new adventures leaving home and family behind. ‘To be continued’ you can almost imagine flashing up. ‘Coming soon, Nutcracker 2‘. Maybe even a franchise.
Birmingham’s ballet goes for the sweet and probably more appealing conclusion. Everyone goes ‘aahhh’, a few may even shed a tear before heading off into the cold night air and maybe the festive German market. Happy Christmas.
The Nutcracker continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome to December 13. Visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com for details and tickets.
Birmingham Royal Ballet will also perform an adapted version of the ballet at the Royal Albert Hall from December 28-31. Visit www.royalalberthall.com for details and tickets.
Special feature: Birmingham’s Nutcracker from the wings
A look at Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker as seen from the wings. All photos by Andrew Ross.