Opera House, Stuttgart
December 14, 2022
For many, maybe even most, ballet companies, The Nutcracker is the most important show of the year, certainly financially. Not at Stuttgart Ballet, however, which had not performed a full-length version of the classic since John Cranko’s long-lost 1966 work, although there was also a short-lived 75-minute production by Marco Goecke in 2006. But all that has changed with the arrival of a new ballet by Romanian choreographer Edward Clug, with sets and costumes by the acclaimed Jürgen Rose. And it’s the 85-year-old Rose’s designs that stick most in the memory, although most of the best pictures come after the interval.
Clug has gone back to E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King for inspiration. Act I is immediately recognisable. After an opening that features a Christmas street market and lots of fun for the many children of the John Cranko School that feature, the action moves indoors to the Stahlbaum’s family gathering.
It is very realistic and charming even if the Christmas market looks rather plain compared to the real thing; sort modernist in a way. It does provide lots of opportunities for the youngsters to indulge in throwing snowballs, skating and such like, though.
Clug’s dances for the children at the beautifully informal family dinner are also much more interesting than usual.
At the dinner, scene-stealing among the guests was the increasingly tipsy Grandmother, played by Magdalena Dziegielewska. She pops up in Act II too, being dragged through the scene, still glass-in-hand, on a rug. It’s quite ridiculous and deliciously hilarious.
Generally, the act struggles to spark, however. It’s not helped by the lack of much in the way of extended dancing for the grown-ups, although the biggest issue is presenting Clara and Fritz very much as children but danced by company members Rocio Aleman and Alessandro Giaquinto. The latter bounds around like a youngster but neither looks remotely that age when placed alongside and dancing with real kids.
Martino Semenzato’s wonderfully enigmatic Drosselmeier arrives by bounding onto the dinner table. His later telling Clara and Fritz of his nephew, turned into a nutcracker by the Mouse King is neatly illustrated by Marí Fernandez Paixà as the Nephew/Nutcracker dancing but with different faces back and front.
When Drosselmeier then gives Clara a wooden nutcracker as a present, all is set for her vivid dream, which all takes place in her bedroom. There’s the usual encounter with the Mouse King, a wild-eyed Matteo Crockard-Villa, who looked rather evil and slightly futuristic as he moves around in a wheeled frame itching for a fight. I’m sure I’ve seen a similar scary character in Dr. Who. The ensuring battle between mice and soldiers is a bit of a let down, though.
But then Clug takes a sharp turn. Things also pick up enormously. Having been wounded in battle, the Nutcracker takes off into the forest. So, instead of the usual waltz for the Snowflakes, there’s a super elegant dance for the Queen and sixteen fragile Fairies of the Forest. Rose again comes up trumps with a beautiful backdrop of a bare walnut tree and orange sky, and some gorgeous long, cream, floaty dresses for the dancers.
Walnuts actually appear again and again. Up to five giant ones are used in various ways, most dramatically at the start of act two, when they appear shattered, one cracked and holed hanging above, the remains of it and the others scattered across the stage, which for a brief moment looks like the scene of some apocalyptic event.
Like all the best Nutcrackers, Clug then keeps the narrative going rather than treating Act II simply as a series of only vaguely connected dances. Instead of snowy scenes and travelling to the Kingdom of Sweets (after all, all that sugar is terribly bad for you), Drosselmeier and Clara, who seems to grow up during the interval, go in search of the wounded hero, helped by toys and meeting any number of creatures and characters along the way.
Not only does the whole act teems with energy but, wherever you look, the costumes are fabulous. It is a riot of colour. Among the most vivid are those for the Butterflies, who appear in another sparkling group dance.
The highlight of the ‘national’ dances is undoubtedly the Arabian, reimagined for two very funny bactrian (two-humped) camels. Their movement and expression is quite brilliant. Their dropping into splits is eye-watering. The Spanish dance features an amusing take-off of toreadors, while the Russian is busy with Cossacks, Matryoshkas, men on horses and more. The Chinese dance is reworked for children as beetles, about as un-Asian as you can get. While understanding the issues around it, and there were (still are) some quite disgraceful versions out there, it does seem unfortunate that Clug can’t bring himself to even reference the dance’s origins. Given that the ballet includes a cute dragon, why not a dragon dance?
Love triumphs over Mouse King curse, of course, the Nutcracker, now returned to human form, eventually appearing from within a giant walnut. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy, however. Aleman had shown a lovely childlike innocence and joy throughout Act II as she met the menagerie of characters. Now she had a more serious but radiant face as she finally got to meet her Nutcracker, her love. With Paixà now able to throw off his angular, wooden, Nutcracker look, and instead supremely elegant and relaxed in princely white, the couple gave us a gently romantic, nicely understated pas de deux.
The end is left to Drosselmeier, though, now with a drink too. I’ll swear Semenzato gave us all a knowing wink before the lights went out.
All told, a new Nutcracker that is good family entertainment and one that I suspect might run for years. Let off the leash somewhat, the cast threw themselves into everything wholeheartedly and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience. There is lots that will appeal to children. The various animals are pretty much all super cute, and the pictures that Rose paints are intensely colourful. It was cheered loud and long.