Dance Theatre Pforzheim: Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Theater Pforzheim
December 6, 2023

A white rabbit that recalls Alice in Wonderland. Some seasoning from The Sleeping Beauty. Woody and Jessie from Toy Story. Barbie and Ken. Spiderman. Some other presumably film characters I didn’t recognise. And a green dinosaur. They’re all in Dance Theatre Pforzheim’s Nutcracker and the Mouse King (Nussknacker und Mausekönig). And yet, it does all make sense in what is a hugely enjoyable interpretation of E. T. A. Hoffman’s story that is told with lots of imagination, accompanied by the excellent Badisches Philharmonic directed by Michael Pichler.

Artistic director and choreographer Guido Markowitz and co-librettist Thomaspeter Goergen take us to Konfitürenburg, described as “somewhere between Wonderland and Hogwarts,” a fairy tale palace where Princess Clara and her prince are celebrating their engagement at a Christmas party.

Right from the off, the focus is on the story, and telling it using dance. Markowitz’s easy on the eye vocabulary is driven by contemporary dance but with balletic references thrown in alongside some natural everyday gesture and movement. Through the casting of spells, an encounter with mafia mice, a mysterious toy shop in a strange town and a cold forest, to the ‘happy ever after’ ending, the choreography and narrative has pace and flows easily throughout. The whole cast were excellent throughout.

Dance Theatre Pforzheim’s Nutcracker and the Mouse King
Photo Andrea D’Aquino

The White Rabbit is first seen as a stuffed toy of Clara’s but almost immediately reappears in the shape of the delightful, just slightly hyperactive Cesare Di Laghi. He rushes around, white ears sticking through his hat, trying to make sure the evening will be perfect.

Eunbin Kim is a very bright Clara, always smiling. She couldn’t have looked more happy and radiant in a lovely playful duet to what is often called the ‘Mirlitons music’ for her and the Prince, played by Timothé Durand Caulliez. The whole party is a colourful affair. As it’s Christmas, a giant sprig of mistletoe hangs from above but there’s no kiss as the celebrations are interrupted by the Mouse King and his mother, who were not invited. And she is decidedly unhappy about it.

Camille Zany (Mouse Queen Mother) and Benedict Redlin (Mouse King)
in Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Guido Markowitz
Photo Andrea D’Aquino

Camille Zany dived into the role of the Mouse Queen Mother with glee, playing it for all it’s worth. Dressed in a stunning grey, fur-edged long coat and in true Carabosse-style, she glared at all and sundry before leading something of a fracas, at the end of which she turns the Prince into a wooden nutcracker. Her son (Benedict Redlin), who she reckons would make a much better husband for Clara, seemed rather less fussed, here as in later fights standing a bit to the side.

Clara manages to escape with Drosselmeyer (Eleonora Pennacchini) and the White Rabbit, only to run across the mice in the street, now cleverly portrayed as a bunch of incompetent mafiosi as interested in posing as anything else. Not for the first time, the Mouse Queen Mother didn’t seem to have much time for her followers, Zany giving them a wonderful ‘why am I lumbered with these idiots’ look.

Eleonora Pennacchini as Drosselmeyer in Nutcracker and the Mouse King
Photo Andrea D’Aquino

Unusually, Drosselmeyer is portrayed as a woman, which allows Markowitz to give her a more maternal role. In another Sleeping Beauty connection, she almost seems a sort of Lilac Fairy, albeit an earthy one.

When the nutcracker doll gets broken in the fight, it’s off to the Drosselworld toyshop, teeming with life-sized, dancing characters from film franchises. After the doll is repaired it comes to magical life only for another well-choreographed battle to ensue.

This time, Clara neatly dispatches the Mouse King’s mother. No messing around with a ballet slipper though. Two martial-arts-style kicks and a killer right hook is way more effective!

But the Mouse Queen Mum is still not done. She makes the dagger-sharp ice-cold snow crystals dance out of her wintery realm and kidnap Clara and the Nutcracker.

Esther Bätschmann’s set and costume designs are excellent throughout but it’s in this chill-in-every-sense-of-the-word scene that she produces an unexpected ace. Ambling upstage is a reindeer. White suit. White scarf. Crutches for the front legs. Not only is it an inspired piece of design but Isak Källman catches perfectly the ungainly way the animal walks. He was absolutely eye-catching. The quality of movement was outstanding

Timothé Durand Caulliez (Prince), Cesare Di Laghi (White Rabbit)
and Eunbin Kim (Clara), with ensemble,
in Guido Markowitz’s Nutcracker and the Mouse King for Dance Theatre Pforzheim
Photo Andrea D’Aquino

Now prisoners, the Nutcracker is deceived and seduced by three false Claras, while the Mouse King tries to win Clara over to the Arabian Dance music, which works rather well. Even with the pair blindfolded, they can’t help but realise their suitors have tails, though, and the tricks fail.

It’s just one of many occasions the familiar Tchaikovsky score is shifted around and repurposed. It does largely work, although some numbers so sometimes feel a little underpowered choreographically, the music usually used for the transformation scene for one.

Clara and the Prince’s loyalty affirmed, spells are broken. Back in the castle ballroom, there’s a fine solo for Durand Caulliez’ to the Spanish music, before a lovely grand duet in which Kim’s personality shone again in particular, Clara’s happiness spilling out across the footlights.

Guido Markowitz’s Nutcracker and the Mouse King may be different but it’s a convincing telling that sends you away with a big grin. It not only captures fully the spirit of the story but has an ultra-happy end when all is forgiven, even the Mouse Queen Mother and the Mouse King forgiven, reconciled and becoming friends with all.