Livestream from the Birmingham REP
December 18, 2020
Since it was first performed in 1990, The Nutcracker at the Birmingham Hippodrome has become as much a part of the city’s Christmas experience as the theatre’s extravagant panto and the German Market that usually fills New Street and Victoria Square. The ballet is also an important introduction to the art form for many who might not otherwise be attracted.
So, when Birmingham found itself in Tier 3, with even socially-distanced audiences locked out of theatres, things looked a bit grim. But fear not because with help from the Linbury Trust, Birmingham Royal Ballet and The REP Artistic Directors Carlos Acosta and Sean Foley still managed to find away. It may be slimmed down and online only, but Birmingham in 2020 did get its Nutcracker.
The performance was dedicated to Marion Tait, stepping down as Assistant Director after a remarkable and glorious 52 years with the company. In a lovely interval piece and with principal dancer Samara Downs she talks fondly about the ballet and dancing through its generations (Sugar Plum Fairy, Mother and Grandmother).
The ballet may have been cut to a first act of 39 minutes and a second of 32 but, and despite the necessary set changes to make it fit on the REP’s smaller stage, it still looks sumptuous. It still feels Christmassy. It still makes you feel good. It is 80 minutes of escape from the awful times we find ourselves in, even if it doesn’t send the same tingles down the spine as the live production, although to be fair, any dance on screen struggles to do that.
Those who know the Birmingham production well will spot the changes and omissions immediately. Most work well, although one or two of the new musical joins where dances have been taken out, sound a bit odd.
After the company added a prologue to the ballet for its Royal Albert Hall version, it is no surprise to find one here too, in which we meet Jonathan Payn’s Drosselmeyer and others on their way to the Stahlbaum’s gathering. It works well and I suspect strongly it will become part of the full production whenever it returns.
At the party, the lighting of the Christmas tree, a moment of wonder and magic, has sadly gone, as has the big, elegant ensemble dance for all. No children’s dance either (not many children anyway), although that was a nice surprise as I’ve always liked it much less. A clever touch that makes a lot of narrative sense is the replacing of Harlequin and Columbine with Nutcracker and Sugar Plum Fairy dolls, although surely Karla Doorbar’s Clara should show more interest in the latter that she appears to. Another link to what’s coming is Fritz having a sword-wealding Mouse King glove puppet rather than just the weapon of old.
For me, the transformation scene is always the moment when Christmas arrives. In this version, it may have no swivelling walls and fireplaces and no tree reaching out and filling the stage, but it’s all neatly covered with projections, and the appearance pre-battle of the Nutcracker doll Gus Payne in a mini pas de deux with Clara works well.
The opening of Act 2 brings a surprise as Clara finds herself in a world of what look like waxworks or giant dolls of the characters from the second half dances. With their white masks, they look slightly spooky. Never fear, though. Drosselmeyer does a Dr Coppélius and magics them all to life.
The divertissements are all a delight, although disappointingly there is no Mirlatons dance, even though they appear in the act’s opening and finale. I have long called for the original and at best ‘unfortunate’ Chinese dance to be changed. Hurrah! The rechoreographed version, full of leaps and turns, is a delight.
‘Delight’ pretty much sums up the big pas de deux too, carried off perfectly by César Morales and Momoko Hirata.
This new version of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker might not be the one everyone has come to love, and wanted to see. I do wonder whether, fuelled by necessity, the company has found something for the future, however. If the full production had a problem, it’s that it was always too big and too complicated for other theatres. It couldn’t be toured. But with this version, whenever touring might be conceivable again, other venues might be possible. It would certainly be guaranteed box-office.
Finally, a special mention for host Shireenah Ingram, who some will remember taking on the role of Lady Capulet in the groundbreaking Ballet Hoo! production of Romeo and Juliet back in 2006, for which she was mentored by Marion Tait. She is a delight; a breath of fresh air. She exudes a lovely friendly enthusiasm as she introduces the streaming and runs through an outline of the story. I sincerely hope it’s not the last we see of her in the role.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker at the REP is available to view on-demand. Tickets (£15 per device) must be purchased by December 21, although the show can then be watched until December 24.
More information about the production and a cast list is available at www.brb.org.uk.