December in the Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema season means only mean one thing: Nutcracker. Charlotte Kasner takes a peek at the forthcoming December 20 screening.
There is an almost Brechtian air to the film as we start in real time, watching the audience in the foyer, many taking pictures of themselves by the Christmas tree. More interesting, especially to those who never see behind the curtain, is the footage of the dancers warming up on stage. Fifteen minutes slip by effortlessly as we flip between front and back of house, and whets the appetite nicely for the suspension of belief that is a performance.
In the foyer, it could be London: some members of the audience in black tie and others in jeans. Just the odd pair of boots reminds us of the need for the cloakroom and the weather outside (five degrees of frost and snowing gently in Moscow as I write).
Of course, it is ‘snowing’ on stage too as the guests arrive at the party like animated figures from a Gogol story. The historic Bolshoi theatre does snow like no other, light seeming to melt as it lands with the depth of the great stage enabling the gauze to work at its best.
Interestingly, the Bolshoi did not produce the Nutcracker until a 1919 version by Alexander Gorski. Grigorovich danced in the Vainonin production that had remained at the Maryinsky since the première in 1892, and created this version for the Bolshoi in 1966, just two years after taking over at the Bolshoi.
After an informative short introduction from Katerina Novikova, it’s curtain up! As the guests arrive for the party, Drosselmeyer (Denis Savin) brings up the rear with the life-sized Nutcracker doll, and the fun begins. He is very much the magician, performing assorted tricks with his cane as well as producing a life-size Harlequin and Columbine and two devils who dance the Vivandière and the Soldier variations. As the adults leave for supper, Drosselmeyer reveals the Nutcracker. As in Nutcrackers everywhere, he is of course duly broken by Fritz, restored again, with Marie is left to play with him while the adults return for more dancing.
Having crept downstairs to sleep alongside the Nutcracker, Marie cowers in an oversize armchair as the battle with the mice commences, the tree looming over the fray. Grigorovich goes for the traditional dispatching of the Mouse King by Marie throwing her shoe at him, which unsurprisingly is not terribly effective, so it’s left to Drosselmeyer to shoo him away.
…and so to more snow. Simon Virsiladze’s snowflakes are delightful. Pom-poms in hand, they do more than evoke earlier times, they are an echo of the originals in 1892. Ivanov, who had a more or less free hand in the choreography, also hints at swans. They are a reminder, as if one was needed, that the Bolshoi corps are the core of the company.
Incidentally, look out for a very prominent pair of swans that form part of the giant tree’s ornaments; another reminder that those birds are never very far away.
In Act II, the toys get a chance to shine in their variations, but not before the Mouse King re-appears and is finally routed by the Nutcracker Prince (a narrative also followed by Sir Peter Wright in Birmingham). If the Spanish dance challenges in its furiosity, the Arabian (actually more Hindu than Arabic), is a triumph of adage, the great stage being traversed in a series of repeated splits interrupted by turns en pointe. The Russian dance is a pas de deux rather than the three Ivans, the Chinese memorable mainly for multiple barre turns. The Mirlitons are a delight, however, done as a charming French shepherd and shepherdess, complete with lamb on wheels.
Grigorovich uses the Madame Ginger music to create an ensemble for all of the dolls that heralds the Waltz of the Flowers. This is one of the loveliest moments of the ballet, the corps again coming into their own as Marie dreams of being at her marriage ball, snow-covered Christmas tree as a centrepiece. The flowers frame the grand pas de deux, Marie’s wedding to the Nutcracker Prince (no Sugar Plum Fairy in this version).
There’s a hint of sadness when Marie finally has to say goodbye to her dream; her childhood too. As Novikova points out at the beginning, she is looking to an unknown future.
Margarita Shrainer works hard as Marie but struggles to convince as a child. She is expressive, but fails to capture the wide-eyed naïvté of the role’s creator, the wonderful Ekaterina Maximova. and her dancing is sometimes a tad nervous and insecure, with the odd wobbly lift and preparations signalled long beforehand. But no doubt it’s a role she will grow in to in time.
Semyon Chudin as the Nutcracker Prince is the perfect partner and shines in his solos. Of slight build, he is both convincing as the doll and has the stage presence of a classic handsome prince.
This is the tenth anniversary of Bolshoi screenings. The next best thing to being there, and long may it continue to let audiences worldwide to experience what was once a very rare treat for a very few.
Bolshoi Ballet in The Nutcracker is in cinemas on Sunday, December 20, 2020. For more information, venues, times and tickets, visit bolshoiballetcinema.co.uk.