Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker leaves a warm glow

Royal Albert Hall, London
December 28, 2018

Joy Wang X.Y

Nutcracker is like an annual ritual, when the calendar swings to the tail end of the year the theatres begin to fill. Like all rituals it has its functions; it leaves us feeling warm and happy on the inside. But like most rituals it is also a hermetic universe, undisturbed by changing seasonal tides often to the point of anachronism. But more on that later.

Our guide through Birmingham’s Nutcracker is Clara. She is the story’s imaginative architect. This world of magic and invention is as much her creation as it is Drosselmeyer’s project. It needs lightness, which Karla Doorbar tiny and neat certainly has, but Clara also possess something of a curious mind. She does not have to be a pre-feminist creature, pale and wispy. Doorbar’s Clara is so airily drawn that we lose much of Clara’s silver tongued cheek.

Momoko Hirata as the Sugar Plum Fairy and César Morales as the Princein Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert HallPhoto Annabel Moeller
Momoko Hirata and César Morales
in The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall
Photo Annabel Moeller

The women around her are far more forceful. Samara Downs as the Snow Queen has both the icy cold of winter and a softness that points towards spring. The elegant Delia Matthews, with a regal set to her jaw, manages to turn the Arabian and its reptilian undulations into something combative and far more interesting.

But it wouldn’t be Nutcracker if there wasn’t a problem and if English National Ballet’s Achilles heel is its Arabian, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s is the Chinese. It takes a stereotype (‘the Asian as martial artist’), but one that nevertheless has some cultural valance (the wu of classical wen/wu models) and emasculates it, reducing it to an object of laughter. It is a parody of a parody, a tired trope turned into a clownish display. The national dances in Act Two are all to an extent caricatures but whereas the Spanish and the Russian are dignified with a certain masculine strength, the Chinese are treated as something close to half-men. They are the jokers in a European court, except we don’t laugh with them. We laugh at them.

The problem with all this is that it turns our attention (or my attention at least) from what really matters, which is the dancing and the dancers. And this production by Sir Peter Wright has some of the most beautiful set pieces, none more so than the grand pas de deux.

Perhaps the drama of the grand pas de deux comes from the way it weaves together multiple timescapes; dreams fold into memory and anticipation turns into nostalgia. It could be a metaphor for life; at the very moment when it comes into ecstatic focus it must also dissolve into the ash grey of memory. This is rapture that indexes the promise of loss. Perhaps it feels that way because Momoka Hirata and Cesar Morales, two long-standing principals, possess the patience to attend to the music’s deeper stirrings. There are repeated moments when the ballerina unfolds her leg parallel to her body and then rotates her body until she reaches a deep penchée. As she does so, she opens her arms from fifth position. Hirata who understands the power of a simple crescent has a lovely way of opening that halo and tracing its circumference.

On Friday night ,in particular, it felt like the ballet had come full circle. Like Doorbar’s Clara, Hirata is delicate and wispy. But Hirata’s Sugar Plum also radiates tender authority. Maybe Nutcracker, rather than being a journey through ethnicised sweets or questionable representations of foreign lands, is really about what it means to grow into adulthood and who we want to be when we grow up.