Ballet Theatre UK
Sevenoaks, November 1st 2009
So it is with Ballet Theatre UK’s new version of The Nutcracker, the quintessential Christmas ballet based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Der Nussknacker und der Mäusekönig.
As the UK’s newest ballet company, and given that it’s probably the most performed ballet in the world (first staged in London in 1934), director and choreographer Christopher Moore has worked wonders to bring this tale up to date with modern sets and costumes. There are two alternating casts of ten dancers, meaning that they all work double time with the costume changes and Moore has choreographed the ballet to suit his Company. It’s an exciting prospect – new choreography in a classical full-length narrative ballet – and you’ll be pleased to know that there is more in the pipeline.
The scene unfolds one evening where a mother and her daughter Clara (Megan Wood), are hosting a party. Danced with great characterization, warmth and grace by Maria Engel, the mother is busy in her role as hostess, making sure all of the guests are happy, as you would.
One of the guests is Clara’s uncle Drosselmeyer, who presents her with a Nutcracker doll. Pere Bodi Perez has the nimble footwork and magical aura needed to capture the guests’ attention when he introduces two dolls – Columbine and the Harlequin doll, brought to life brilliantly by Natalie Cawte and Diarmaid O’Meara.
As Clara tiptoes wide-eyed down the stairs at midnight to fetch her Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer is waiting for her.
He sends her off on a journey where she battles the Rat King & is rewarded for her bravery when her doll turns into a handsome Prince.
By now you might be wishing you had your own Drosselmeyer. The handsome Prince, (Diarmaid O’Meara), whisks Clara away to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of the Sweets, where they find the Sugar Plum Fairy (Maria Engel).
Tchaikovsky’s “Valse des Flacons de Neige” – the Waltz of the Snowflakes, begins with curling, cascading music, much like the snowflakes themselves. Danced by Maria Engel, Alexandra Fern, Natalie Cawte and Amy Coughlan in beautiful costumes designed by Moore (as are all the costumes), the Snowflakes are joined by Kazuka Oike in a dazzling white and silver tutu and waltz in perfect time to a glittering backdrop.
Reaching the Kingdom of Sweets, Engel, as The Sugar Plum Fairy, shimmers and glides, delicately picking through the music. O’Meara gave a clear and impassioned rendition of the mime sequence, all hand gestures, where he describes their adventures to the Sugar Plum Fairy, who presents him with a medal. Clara receives a diamond necklace and the pair is invited by the Sugar Plum Fairy to take part in a celebration, where she will dance in their honour.
The divertissements which follow are great fun and also relate to gifts of hot chocolate, coffee, tea & candy canes from their relevant country.
In terms of technique in the Spanish dance, I couldn’t tell Alexandra Fern apart from Royal Ballet Principal dancer Laura Morera, so sharp was her footwork & characterization. Plenty of swirling skirts and imagined castanets, ably partnered by Sam Bishop. Coughlan and Perez had good timing throughout.
Natalie Cawte hasn’t put a foot wrong wherever I’ve seen the Company, and in the Arabian dance she had a sinuous technique with charisma and joie de vivre to spare. Her use of space is excellent and she has a strong technique, visible not only in her slow, controlled drop into the splits, unsupported, but also in the lifts, walking over her partner Chris James’ thigh to sit on his shoulder; she was a joy to watch. It’s a tough dance on the back, but you wouldn’t have known as both brought out the full flavour of the piece.
The Russian dance, or Trepak (a bravura traditional Ukrainian folk dance in 2/4 time) is played in a presto tempo with deep squats and split leaps, and is performed exclusively by men. It’s a testing feat where Perez and Bishop did themselves proud, and with O’Meara in the mix you have three Cossack dancers ready to raise the roof. Bishop in particular looked to be thoroughly enjoying himself; it was infectious. The ending, when Clara jumps sideways into all three pairs of hands was done at speed and with great panache.
The music you know so well from the Fruit & Nut adverts, the Dance of the Mirlitons, fills the air and Cawte & Coughlan appear in Broadway top hats, pink gloves and stripy tutus. Wood, as Clara, joins in and all three had great timing and some really sassy moves. Special mention has to go again to Cawte for her sharpness and great hand shaping.
The Sugar Plum Fairy hands Clara a quite giant rose, signalling the start of the Waltz of the Flowers. In sparkling pink tutus, Oike, Coughlan and Cawte swirled their way through the music; Cawte looked especially to be enjoying herself, with strong balances. Partnered by Perez, Bishop and James, waltzing in a circle might have even the celebrities on Strictly Come Dancing in a spin but they held together well.
No matter how much fun you’ve had so far, The Nutcracker stands or falls with the famously tricky Intrada, variations and central pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Here Engel tones down her inner hostess and is serene & regal, stroking the floor with her feet; perfectly matched by O’Meara who has long elegant lines especially in his first solo.
In an already difficult solo, The Sugar Plum Fairy dances a series of Gargouillades, essentially a pas de chat variation with a double ronde de jambe on each foot. It takes a brilliant technician to get this step right especially on the closing leg, and I’ve not seen it danced this well before. Engel turns well and has beautiful soft feet, but don’t think Sugar Plum gets all the limelight; where would she be without her Prince, and O’Meara’s jumps are high & plush with lovely soft landings.
O’Meara and Engel both have beautiful phrasing on their own, but together their phrasing becomes a conversation in the central pas de deux and it’s one that the audience want to hear. This section was labelled by Tchaikovsky as “Andante maestoso”, or “flowing majestically”, and with these two, it does. O’Meara’s exemplary partnering skills are evident in his effortless high lifts, Engel sitting on one shoulder, and into the swooping fish dives so characteristic of this dance. The final fish dive was marvellous.
The closing waltz ends with Clara lifted up high while the others slowly twirl off the stage in each corner. Clara wakes up and finds herself at home; did she dream it all ? Did we ? Well, lucky Clara has the diamond necklace !
Ballet Theatre UK are currently on tour (book here):
Nov 7th Andover The Lights 2.30pm & 7.30pm 01264 368368
Nov 12th Tamworth Assembly Rooms 7.30pm 01827 709618
Nov 13th Solihull Arts Complex 7.30pm 0121 7046962
Nov 15th York Joseph Rowntree Theatre 5.00pm 01904 623568
Nov 19th Wimborne Tivoli Theatre 7.30pm 01202 885566
Nov 21st East Grintead Chequer Mead 2.30pm & 7.30pm 01342 302000
Nov 26th Newbury Arlington Arts 7.00pm 01635 244246
Nov 27th Newbury Arlington Arts 7.00pm 01635 244246
Nov 28th Newbury Arlington Arts 2pm & 7.00pm 01635 244246
Nov 29th Nuneaton Abbey Theatre 2.00pm & 5.00pm 07722 389943
Dec 5th Powys Wyeside Arts 7.30pm 01982 552555
Dec 6th Harlech Theatr Harlech 7.30pm 01766 780667
Dec 10th Milton Keynes Stantonbury Theatre 7.30pm 01908 324422
Dec 11th Henleyon-Thames Kenton Theatre 7.30pm 01491 575698
Dec 19th Hinckley Concordia Theatre 2.30pm & 7.30pm 07910 707825