December 16, 2021
After last year’s hiatus when theatre closures prevented English National Ballet from presenting a live Nutcracker for the first time in 70 years, the ballet is back at the London Coliseum, as much a part of the city’s Christmas as the nearby Trafalgar Square tree, Covent Garden decorations and Regent Street lights. However, while this production, created by Wayne Eagling and Toer van Schayk in 2010 and based on their 1996 Dutch National Ballet original, does have flashes of festive sparkle (and perhaps this is a reflection of how Covid is making us feel right now), it also feels rather underwhelming and never quite producing the glow you want and feel it should.
The opening tableau sets a wintry Christmas card scene. Snow falls as skaters glide along the frozen river, the trees behind with a seasonal white outline. Inside the warm looking house, the party is busy and crowded. After Drosselmeyer treats us to a few magic tricks, the young Clara falls for her Nutcracker and the old family friend’s nephew. Tring Park student Annalise Wainwright-Jones was delightful as the youngster. She has a lovely sense of childlike wonder and a particularly expressive face. Her showing of her feelings for the Nephew was especially well done.
The party is busy and crowded. A lot goes on, much of it I suspect unnoticed. I couldn’t help smiling as, right off to one side, Michael Coleman’s Grandfather decides he ought to taste his wife’s wine first, before persuading Clara’s mischievous brother, Freddie, to take a surreptitious glass. It is a shame that the Christmas tree gets rather lost at the back (the Dutch version, being set on St Nicholas Eve doesn’t have one at all), and that the scene too often felt a little flat, though.
Despite the rodents’ slightly scary looking hollowed out eyes, the battle between the soldiers and mice is also somewhat unconvincing. There are some clever ideas though, not least the turning of the tables as the mice use a mousetrap as a catapult to fire cheese at the soldiers. The balloon in which Clara, the Nutcracker and Drosselmeyer make their escape still looks as magical as ever, even if take off was slow.
It’s around here that the story might get a tad confusing for some. Clara runs off as a child only to reappear seconds later as a grown up, while the Nutcracker transforms into the Nephew and back again a couple of times, before turning into a prince.
As the older Clara, Erina Takahashi danced finely, carrying through her character’s playful innocence. Francesco Gabriele Frola was elegant as the Nephew, his leaps confident, high and landed featherlight. The couple were a fine pair in the big Act II pas de deux, where the ballet truly burst into glittering life.
The corps were right on the button in the two big ensemble dances. Julia Conway stood out particularly in Snowflakes.
In the Act II national dances, there were fireworks from Noam Durand in the Russian, who let rip from the off, veritably flying through his turns and leaps. Francesca Velicu, Jung ah Choi and Daniel McCormick brought sunshine to the Spanish, with plenty of machismo from him.
Shorn of its admittedly problematic male ‘slave master’ lead, the female quartet that in now the Arabian is a pleasant classical dance but struggles for impact. At least is suggestive of the region, which is more than can be said for what follows. With so many styles of Chinese dance to choose from, some of which have a close association with ballet, I really struggle to understand why so many Nutcrackers continue to get it wrong. Most disappointing though is the Mirliton, an unexciting, if admittedly elegant, solo that seems to feature a Greek statue come to life. It was also taken at a funereal pace.
Still, like a Christmas comfort blanket, and let’s face it, right now we all need that, it is nice to have Nutcracker back at the Coliseum, even if it could do with perking up a little.
Two days later it was possible to make comparisons with the Eagling and van Schayk’s original as Dutch National Ballet livestreamed their production from Amsterdam. It’s not without its issues too, but it really did feel so much brighter, so much more alive, especially at that Act I party.
English National Ballet’s Nutcracker continues at the London Coliseum to January 8, 2022. Visit londoncoliseum.org for details and tickets.
The company then premiere Tamara Rojo’s new Raymonda, which runs from January 13-23.