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Nutcracker

by on 12 December 2019

Everlasting Enchantment of the Imagination

Nutcracker

by Wayne Eagling, music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

English National Ballet at the London Coliseum until 5th January

Review by Suzanne Frost

For the last few years, I have certainly felt Nutcracker fatigue, simply because there are so many other fairy-tale ballets that could do with an outing and if I, as an audience member, am fed up with it, just imagine what your average corps de ballet snowflake must feel like … But after a few years of slim fasting and a guilty panic about my lack of Christmas spirit, ENB’s wholesome concoction of sweet delights is just the thing to get the festive season into gear.

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It only takes the first few notes of Tchaikovsky’s giddily excited overture to transport you right back to childhood memories. We meet young Clara and her family as they are getting ready to host their Christmas party, older sister Louise vainly checking her appearance while Clara and her brother Freddie, both lively young performers from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, playfully annoy each other as siblings do and watch the ice skaters doing their elegant turns on the lake just outside the window. Inside, the vast stage of the Coliseum is transformed into a cosy salon brimming with activity. The child performers from various London dance school are well used and give solid performances throughout, with individual personalities shining through. One little girl was tirelessly jumping up and down inNutcrakENB5 anticipation of her present, the spitting image of my own five-year-old niece. The eccentric Uncle Drosselmeyer performs magic tricks to the delight of the children (and probably the cringe of the adults). There’s one in every family … There are some wonderful individual characters populating the stage, Clara’s father is particularly dapper, and grandma and grandpa are genuinely cute. They are joined by some more odd fellows, a dangerously stereotyped Scotsman and a man who seems to have borrowed Oscar Wilde’s velvet morning jacket, both pursuing teenage Louisa in a really inappropriate way. Clara herself develops a little girl crush on Drosselmeyer’s grown up nephew – quite understandable when danced by the handsome Francesco Gabriele Frola. The Nutcracker Clara receives as a Christmas gift provokes some delighted giggles as he starts walking on his little motorised legs, looking a bit like a transformer doll.

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Some of the story telling, so evident in Tchaikovsky’s score, gets muddled by an overload of ideas and some bewildering choreography that seems to insist on ignoring the music. As Clara drifts off to sleep, she is rather elegantly swapped out for first soloist Erina Takahashi. The mouse that Freddie placed under Clara’s bed to scare her is transformed in her dream into the mouse king and a whole army of rather gothic looking mice with NutcrakENB3skulls for heads. A wild battle ensues, where various regiments of toy soldiers and even the cavalries are called to fight the mice and their cheese firing mouse trap. While the stage is nicely action filled again, Tchaikovsky’s most magical tree growing music is misused for a series of random lifts and jumps from our Nutcracker (Skyler Martin). Somehow, Wayne Eagling’s choreography is dead set to overhear all cues in the score, for the sake of adding some new twists and turns to a perfectly fine story. Unsatisfyingly, the mouse in this production is not killed and the Nutcracker who received a scratch on his arm, rolls around the stage faking a deadly injury like an overpaid football star. He is swiftly exchanged for the dashing Francesco Gabriele Frola, who is now the prince. Bafflingly, the two men flicker in and out of character a couple of times more as we go along. I understand we are inside Clara’s fever dream and things may be blurring in her subconscious, but dramaturgically it is clunky and most of all a waste of time putting that nutcracker mask on and off and on again. What was incredibly sweet though is that Clara, in her childlike innocence can dream of nothing better to do with her prince than swing through the air and slide around in the snow, swished about the stage by a marvellous ensemble of snowflakes, led by soloist Isabelle Brouwers and the insanely watchable rising star Precious Adams, who has the most beautiful shoulder lines.
NutcrakENB2At curtain time, Clara and her prince set off in a balloon, exactly like the one a little girl unwrapped at the Christmas party – the things that make it into our dreams. Unfortunately, the seemingly unkillable mouse king manages to cling on and continues to bug us all through Act Two, where after all this build up he is then unceremoniously killed off stage. Why is anybody’s guess. He is a bit of a panto villain and joyfully performed by Daniel Kraus though, so I guess the children might love him.

The divertissements are mostly delightful, Daniel McCromick dominates the Spanish dance as a dashing torero, Francesca Velicu dazzles with precise pirouettes in the Chinese dance, and Ken Saruahashi is a daredevil Russian. Only the Arabian dance feels tone deaf – surely nothing in the meditative music calls for grand jété jumps en manége? – and Clara’s sister Louisa (Alison McWhinney) makes it into her dreamscape as a butterfly fluttering happily all through the mirliton, no matter the mood change that Tchaikovsky wrote into the music.

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The grand pas de deux though makes up for any of the small squabbles I have with this production. Erina Takahashi is on dazzling form, giving her Sugar Plum Fairy the playful chic, flirty hips and extended balances that you’d expect from a French Paris Opera ballerina. She is well matched by the understated nonchalant virtuosity of Francesco Gabriele Frola. Together, they make this evening sparkle. And then with one wonderfully theatrical bang little Clara wakes up in her bed. The magic of Christmas may be largely in our imagination but hugging your big brother while the first snow falls outside on Christmas morning is just as magical.

This ENB Nutcracker is festive and colourful. Focusing on naturalistic enchantment rather than supernatural stage magic, it celebrates the power of imagination and the ability of children to dream and as we are released back into the cold night, London seems to twinkle just that little bit brighter. Sweet stuff.

Suzanne Frost
December 2019

Photography by Laurent Liotardo

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