English National Ballet’s Nutcracker

London Coliseum
December 13, 2018

Joy Wang X.Y.

In most fairy tales darkness comes from without, an external threat that stops at the threshold of actual menace but teases its presence. In Wayne Eagling’s Nutcracker for English National Ballet the Rat King, the ballet’s equivalent of the anti-hero, is defeated in battle but not eliminated and thematic tension comes from his pursuit of Clara and her Nutcracker into the Land of the Sweets. It is a game of hide and seek with adult consequences.

Though Eagling resolves matters at the beginning of Act Two, the threat of lurking menace and the promise of transient happiness are themes that continue in Tchaikovsky’s music; and culminates in the grand pas de deux.

Happily for us, Rina Kanehara and Jeffrey Cirio, dance the grand pas de deux with singing precision. She, still a soloist, has fresh, bold lyricism and he, a lead principal who has also danced with American Ballet Theatre, gives us dancing both beautifully textured and joyously euphoric.

Rina Kanehara and Jeffrey Cirio in English National Ballet's NutcrackerPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Rina Kanehara and Jeffrey Cirio in English National Ballet’s Nutcracker
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Elsewhere, the Spanish dance has spice and sultriness, while Katja Khaniukova dances the Chinese with delicate steel. Alison McWhinney is lovely in the Mirlitons; and if the female corps is efficient rather than inspired, Precious Adams as one half of the pair of leading flowers is beautiful.

There are moments of real tenderness in the production. The brief family sketch that opens the ballet animates the relationship between the central characters with both humour and warmth; and when the whimsical skaters give way to the party guests, the antique gold drapings give off a scent of dusty warmth.

But there is also a hint of oppressiveness that the ballet doesn’t quite shake off. It comes in a set that hews to heavier, darker tones and in its rather unapologetic anglo-centrism.

In the party scene some of the guests masquerade in various disguises that later reappear in some form or another. It gestures towards Clara’s universe; reality bleeds into dreams, and these perhaps are the references Clara’s imaginative world hinges on. But some of it feels uncomfortable. We have a man in Scottish kilt wearing a rat head and Fritz doesn’t play with dolls and nutcrackers. Instead he is a given a turban and a curved edged sword, the mark of a Sikh warrior, here turned into European playthings. When the grown-up version of Fritz, now decked out in his new finery, marches alongside soldiers dressed not unlike the ones outside Birmingham Palace, it rather resembles a colonial utopia where the empire and its crown jewel live happily ever after.

Rina Kanehara and Jeffrey Cirio in English National Ballet's NutcrackerPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Rina Kanehara and Jeffrey Cirio in English National Ballet’s Nutcracker
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Colonial tropes are present too in the Arabian dance where a harem of women surround a whip-carrying Daniel Kraus who is simultaneously enamoured and repulsed; simultaneously enamouring and repulsive. The women slink and slither while being manhandled and dragged around. This is where the voyeuristic impulse of orientalism (ideations of the exotic east with its phantasmic visions of women) meets the ideological violence of the colonial project (the whole notion of the civilising mission turns on the idea that those violent brutes need to be civilised) in one crass brush. It could also be read as a metaphor of the East in Western political imagination. At once a retrograde civilisation in need of saving and an endless, often problematic, source of fascination: both intriguing and terrifying.

Perhaps this is how Victorian England understood its place in the world but its politics deserve scrutiny. When fantasy is joined to place, imagination linked to a concrete spatial reference, ballet is sometimes on slippery ground. But these problems are not necessarily inherent. There are productions with much better taste; Nutcracker is allowed its flights of fancy if it can justify them or if it manages a degree of reflexivity. I am not convinced this production does.

English National Ballet’s Nutcracker continues at the London Coliseum to December 30, 2018. Visit londoncoliseum.org for details and tickets.