The Gate Cinema, Notting Hill Gate, London
December 31, 2016
Just two days before his 90th birthday, this screening of Yuri Grigorovich’s The Nutcracker reminds us of just how great his interpretations of the classics are, never mind his original ballets.
This Nutcracker was choreographed just four years after what was to be his three-decade tenure at the Bolshoi began. Although its setting is very German, Grigorovich somehow makes it parochially Russian. When premiered in 1892, 11 months before Tchaikovsky’s untimely death, the ballet was staged in a contemporary 19th-century setting where it has tended to remain, even when choreographers attempt to set their own stamp on it.
Grigorovich, unusually, sets it slightly earlier at the end of the 18th-century and eliminates all of the mime. Almost every note is danced and some of the scenes that can drag rather in other productions, such as the party and the battle with the mouse king, simply zip along.
The major strength of the Grigorovich’s Nutcracker is the libretto for which he is rightly credited. It has a both an internal and external logic and eliminates some of the confusions between exactly who is the lead by dispensing with the Sugar Plum Fairy and incorporating her variation into a classical variation with coda for the Nutcracker Prince and Masha (generally known in the West as Clara). he also strips it of the cloying sentimentality with which many productions shower it.
Although Grigorovich incorporates children into the opening party, and gives them enough to do to make them integral to the whole rather than just a Christmas add-on mainly for the benefit of their parents, his Masha is on the verge of adulthood. Drosselmeyer, danced ably by Andrei Merkuriev, is a magician. He produces a Harlequin and Columbine and then the Nutcracker doll, who dance mechanically for Masha and her brother. Crucially, he is a toy for both of them, but when her brother plays roughly and breaks him, it is Masha who begs Drosselmeyer to repair him.
The party is over and everyone sleeps, but Masha dreams. She recalls some of the day’s events but also her fears emerge. She finds herself, like Lewis Carrol’s Alice, suddenly tiny. The tree and the rocking horse in the parlour assume giant proportions and the parlour fills with mice, the same size as herself, like the ornaments in the tree. They fight with her brother’s toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker doll. Revolted, Masha throws her shoe at their leader and helps the Nutcracker to win the day. The mice flee but, before she can celebrate, Masha realises that the Nutcracker has slumped in a heap, broken as he was before. She rushes to him only to discover that, as he stands, he has become a handsome prince. They dance as the snow whirls around them.
Drosselmeyer appears and conjures up a boat and a magical, snowy realm. The Prince and Masha sail into the Kingdom of the Sweets. The decorated tree is now a real fir, covered in snow and Masha’s dolls dance variations from Russia, China, Spain and Arabia. As the scene turns into a ballroom, elegant adults dance the Waltz of the Flowers, the mice somehow transformed, as is the way of dreams, into grey-suited consorts. At her first ball, Masha dances with her Prince.
When she wakes, she’s back in the parlour, the tree full of ornaments, the Nutcracker doll in the chair where she leafy him before she fell asleep. Masha understands that she is growing up. She embraces her parents as the curtain comes down.
Anna Nikulina is a thoughtful Masha. She is truly horrified as she finds herself the same size as the toys and the mice. She also manages a transformation from a girl into a young woman as she dances the grand pas de deux with aplomb. She is elegant line in her adagio and sharp-footed in the Sugar Plum fairy variation. She is ably matched by her prince, here danced by Denis Rodkin making his debut in the role. He copes with the pressure admirably, his batterie twinkling, his partnering considerate and fluid and his jumps apparently effortless with soft, neat landings.
The company seem imbued in this part of their heritage and, when some productions gets more and more bizarre in an effort to stand out, it is marvellous to see such an erudite and beautiful production look as fresh as it did when first danced half a century ago.
Next in the Bolshoi Cinema season is Grigorovich’s The Sleeping Beauty on Sunday January 22, closely followed by his Swan Lake on Sunday February 5. For more details and to find your nearest cinema, visit www.bolshoiballetcinema.co.uk.