In direct competition with The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and confirming that The Nutcracker can fill two opera houses in London on the same night, English National Ballet presents its version in an extended coffer-filling run ahead of the real choreographic meat of its Coliseum season in January after the sweets and mince pies have been finished and the Brussels sprouts finally digested.
This production dates from 2010 but it is probably time for a replacement for, despite some enchanting moments, it has never quite worked and never really captured the spirit of Christmas. The fault lies firmly with the convoluted story-line which keeps enough of a traditional scenario to frustrate when it departs from it. In addition, there is the confusing conflation of the Nutcracker character and Drosselmeyer’s nephew, danced by different dancers, but, in Clara’s imaginings becoming one and the same; thus the nephew is sometimes in his own costume, sometimes that of the Nutcracker and, finally, in a completely new outfit for the Grand Pas of Act Two, which he dances with Clara.
Scenically, the production is also something if a curate’s egg, with brilliant conceits such as the extended ice-skating outside Clara’s surname-less family’s house and the lovely balloon ride to the ‘Puppet Theatre’, but also confused episodes such as the emulation of a puppet show by some of the guests at the Christmas party. There is precious little dancing in the Act One, replaced by heaps of unnecessary narrative, whereas the second has almost nothing but dance and the story is unceremoniously jettisoned.
Underpinning every performance of The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s wondrous score, and much of the drive and the effectiveness of what happens is determined by what is happening in the orchestra pit. Alas, the usually impressive and engaged ENB Philharmonic sounded somewhat on autopilot for much of Act One, rousing themselves for a little more animation in the Second, but never getting into full Tchaikovskian gear. Gerry Cornelius was the players’ distinctly pedestrian conductor, his tempos sluggish, the orchestral sound elicited generic. The result was an uneventful first act from the dancers, the storyline packed with incident but the acting style broad and delivered in distinctly primary colours.
Things perked up considerably after the interval where the dancers actually dance! The Waltz of the Flowers, here a complicated pas de douze, is a satisfying number and puts the dancers through their paces, and, on this occasion, showed one or two over-parted; the Chinese Dance is here a homage to ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ while the Dance of Mirlitons becomes a fiendish solo for a butterfly-like character at times supported by Drosselmeyer. The Arabian Dance used to be a hoot, a faintly bondage version with Clara’s brother Freddie in his adult guise (don’t ask!) bound and manhandled by a decidedly rum slave-owner. Wayne Eagling has toned this down to something altogether less interesting, no doubt in case it hurt any sensibilities concerning human trafficking and the like. His version of the majestic Grand Pas de Deux bears enough of the Lev Ivanov choreography to make one yearn for the original’s stately simplicity, although one cannot deny the theatrical effectiveness of this technically souped-up incarnation.
But, whatever the many shortcomings of this production, the continuing glory of ENB remains its dancers. Tamara Rojo may have suffered from several departures before the beginning of this current season, but she seems able to call upon the services of talented dancers from the world over. Certainly, the transfer of Joseph Caley from Birmingham Royal Ballet after a dozen years with that company is something of a coup. Recently promoted from Principal to Lead Principal, Caley seems to have made the right move – a change of location and colleagues must be a challenge, but while at BRB he would always be the lad whose rose through the ranks, at ENB he must lead his shows as a fully-fledged étoile. Certainly, on the evidence of The Nutcracker, Caley has risen to the challenge, presenting his choreography with silky elegance, the technical challenges cooly met and the whole benefitting from the legato phrasing that is so prized in the English School of dancing. His is an honest, engaging stage personality which he allies with an unforced physicality. He is also a strong and attentive partner, not that Shiori Kase seemed to need much of that. She is a dancer of dazzling technique which she uses in full service of the choreography, not herself, and, crucially, the music.
As Clara, who also ‘becomes’ the Sugar Plum Fairy for the Grand Pas, she was not merely ‘on’ but also ‘in’ the music, revelling in its rhythms and pulses, phrasing her movement with sensitivity and accuracy. It is difficult to find fault – her balances are sustained but never self-indulgent, her pirouettes tight but never whiplash, her footwork simply dazzling while maintaining an expansive and melting upper body. She also has an attractive and open stage persona. The pairing of Kase and Caley is a particularly felicitous one.
Much to praise elsewhere: Rina Kanehara sailed through the fiendish intricacies of the Mirlitons with calm insouciance, while Pedro Lapetra led the Russian dance with exuberance and speed, his leaps and bounds high and exultant; Daniel McCormick made his mark in the Spanish Dance with the energy of a coiled spring. In the first act, amid the confused mummery of the party, veteran Michael Coleman gave an object lesson in character acting as a preening, crotchety old buffer of a Grandfather while both Fabian Reimair and James Streeter did sterling work in the ultimately thankless roles of Drosselmeyer and the Mouse King respectively.
ENB is looking good with dancers of genuine interest and talent, so it is a pity that this production does not provide them with the ideal showcase. However, the upcoming Song of the Earth, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort and La Sylphide should do precisely that. For anyone interested in seeing high-quality dancing in top-notch ballets, January at London’s Coliseum must be a certain destination.