Pär Isberg’s Swedish Nutcracker delights

Royal Swedish Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Stockholm
12th December 2015

Maggie Foyer

Choreographer, Pär Isberg, had a brilliant idea, a true Eureka moment, when he chose Elsa Beskow’s popular Petter and Lotta stories as a base for his version of The Nutcracker. It premiered in 1995 and has been hugely popular ever since. It a homely story as the two orphans celebrate their first Swedish Christmas, finding a tree in the forest, baking cookies with three dotty aunts in the kitchen where the housekeeper/nanny kills a rat with a well-aimed whack of her broom before Uncle Blue’s grand party. The party guests are a typical Christmas party mix of the adored and the eccentric. In the festivities, the charcoal burner who rescues the lost children in the forest, become the dancing Christmas Goat (Julboken) and is transformed into a prince in Uncle Blue’s amateur shadow theatricals. The stage is set for the children to weave all these elements into a wonderful dream.

In this version, the lead roles present unique challenges as the housekeeper and charcoal burner, the children’s favourites, transform into the princess and prince of their dreams. Emily Slawski had a winning combination: the warmth of a beloved nanny and the strength and beautiful feet of a fine classical dancer. Her Prince, Arsen Mehrabyan, warmed to her charm and danced the demanding role with confidence. Isberg’s grand pas full of off-balance swirls, spins and dives complements Tchaikovsky’s melodic flow in skilful neo-classical style and brought the talents of the couple together in a thrilling climax.

Nathalie Nordquist and Dmitry Zagrebin in the Royal Swedish Ballet's NutcrackerPhoto Hans Nilsson
Nathalie Nordquist and Dmitry Zagrebin in the Royal Swedish Ballet’s Nutcracker
Photo Hans Nilsson

The matinee cast saw Dmitriy Zagrebin partnering Natalie Nordquist. She is a fine technician with a sweet smile but never fully engages with the story. Zagrebin in contrast establishes his friendly, dependable character from the opening then confirms his authority in a virtuoso party solo, full of fire despite the handicaps of the goat mask and heavy fur cloak. Petter and Lotta are taxing roles needing boundless energy and quality technique. Frei Ruhl impressed with squeaky clean footwork and a buoyant jump while Minji Nam, youthful and high-spirited, looked almost Swedish in her blonde pigtails. One of the conditions for using Beskow’s characters is that they have to look exactly like the book illustrations.

Isberg’s keen eye for character ensures that the interest never flags and he carries this skill over to the divertissement as sparklers, snowmen, gingerbread cookies and striped candy sticks are each interpreted in unique, made-to-measure choreographic style. Even the dreamy Arabian music finds the perfect dance partner in the three aunties sleepwalking in voluminous nightgowns and caps.

Topping the bill are the three male rats, harnessed by Petter with bright red ribbons, and dancing in matching red pointe shoes. Never has Tchaikovsky’s Mirleton music been used to better effect. Like three vindictive old ballerinas they turn the tables and end up entangling Petter. It has the classic comic ingredients of tall men, pointe shoes and Tchaikovsky but on another level there is a subversive edge as witty pastiches of Balanchine’s Apollo and Ashton’s Fille are snuck in to amuse the sharp eyed aficionados. Joakim Stephenson, Gabriel Barrenengoa and Daniel Norgren-Jensen relished every fine detail and gave performances that surpassed even the masters of the game, The Trocks.

After two successful Mat Ek works, Julia and Romeo and Swan Lake, and Alexander Ekman’s mad Midsummer Night’s Dream, this was a chance for the Royal Swedish Ballet to show they can still deliver a quality classical ballet; and this one is no easy ride. ‘The snowflakes were a crisp and sparkling corps and for the lively Waltz of the Flowers, the company provided a dozen strong couples. It was gratifying to see director Johannes Öhman managing the dance talent in his company to present both contemporary and ballet to such a high standard.