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Wowed by Sugar and Spice: The Nutcracker

by on 22 December 2016

The Nutcracker

by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa

Choreography by Peter Wright

The Royal Ballet at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden until 12th January

Reflections by critic, Mark Aspen

That incredibly growing and growing Christmas tree, the battle with the Mouse King, and of course the Sugar Plum Fairy. These are all wow moments, but how many wow moments still make one gasp after 32 years?

It was in 1984 that I took my daughter, then aged twelve, to see the very first performance of the choreography of The Nutcracker  by the incomparable (now Sir) Peter Wright.   As this year’s Christmas treat, I took my granddaughter, aged six, to see its 432nd performance.   Both young girls were, in their time, totally transfixed … and, after nearly a third of a century, so was I.  It had lost nothing of its freshness, vibrancy or excitement.


Meaghan Grace Hinkis as Clara ©ROH -Tristram Kenton, 2013

The Nutcracker  is of course the epitome of the chocolate box ballet, sugar and spice and all things nice.  Sir Peter Wright’s sugar probably owes more to the confectioner’s town of Nuremberg, the setting of Der Nussknacker und der Mausekönig , the story penned by Hoffmann exactly two centuries ago this Christmas, than it does to the St Petersburg of Tchaikovsky’s 1892 premiere, choreographed by Lev Ivanov. But for all its sweetness, The Nutcracker is a very demanding ballet, none more so than for the Sugar Plum Fairy, who is called at one point to perform no less than eighteen continuous pirouettes.  Marianela Nuñez’s effortless and elegant energy is well up to this role.  This year, his ninetieth(!), Sir Peter has upped the stakes in the Chinese Dance, one of the divertissements that make up most of the second act, with a particularly acrobatic contemporary interpretation.  Calvin Richardson and newcomer Matthew Ball’s physicality in the new choreography is gasp-inducing.

The story of course revolves around Clara, goddaughter of the magician Drosselmeyer, whose nephew, Hans-Peter, has been transformed by the Queen of the Mice into a nutcracker toy. American ballerina, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, is now well established as Clara, but has lost none of the innocence that the part demands. Her contemporary at the Royal Ballet, Italian dancer Valentino Zucchetti, brings lithe artistry to the role of Hans-Peter and their pas de deux portrays an enchanting chemistry.

Particularly impressive is Tomas Mock as the Mouse King, a dancer of great power who has recently been promoted to First Dancer. The part of Drosselmeyer was taken by the Royal Ballet’s choreographer and Principal Character Dancer, Alastair Marriott, now in his twenty-eighth year with the company, who has unparalleled stage presence.

The dancers in the Christmas productions typically vary more from performance to performance than in most productions. The Royal Ballet has a strong connection locally with its junior school at White Lodge in Richmond Park, and students also take part in the Christmas productions, so they are good opportunities to see stars of the future.  Graduating students making their debuts this season include Reece Clarke as the Prince and Isabella Gasparini as Clara.  Watch out also for Francesca Hayward, fresh in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

This year’s outing with my granddaughter was to a special Paul Hamlyn Christmas Treat performance, which was generously supported by Lady Helen Hamlyn as a memorial to her late husband. The matinee was preceded by a morning at the Royal Opera House with lots of opportunities for children to see the company at work.  Amongst the exciting things that my granddaughter saw were a senior students’ Royal Ballet School class, a hair and make-up session (the delicate intricacies of preparing one of the twenty-four Snowflakes) and a demonstration by a theatrical armourer on preparing for the battle between the Toy Soldiers and the Mice.

Then on to the auditorium to see the wow moments burst forth that could span four decades, the sparkle and glamour of the classical ballet, and sheer magic that, for a great Christmas treat, makes this ballet a hard one to crack!

Mark Aspen

December 2016

From → Ballet and Dance

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