English National Ballet | The Nutcracker reviewed | Debut by Venus Villa & Yonah Acosta
English National Ballet
Boxing Day, 26th December 2011
Based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s novel written in 1816, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, The Nutcracker ballet was originally conceived as an entertaining add-on to follow a more serious opera, believed to have been devised to rival the Paris Opera where such double bills were traditional. In the case of The Nutcracker, the composer Tchaikovsky wrote Iolanthe as the serious part of the evening, but the two were ill-suited and parted company after 11 performances (The Nutcracker was first shown to the public on December 6th 1892 with Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara and Sergey Legat as The Nutcracker – both students at the time. Antonietta Dell’Era danced the Sugar Plum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt was her Prince).
English National Ballet’s new production by Wayne Eagling, premiered last December, follows an unbroken line of performances of The Nutcracker since the company’s formation in 1950 – that’s 10 versions! Eagling wanted to bring a traditional Nutcracker back to the company, but also one that explores the darker side to Hoffman’s tale.
The opening scene, with the young Clara in her bedroom on Christmas Eve, watching the show falling outside which quickly becomes a curtain of snow over the entire stage, is charming and sets the tone for the rest of the ballet. Peter Farmer’s elegant Edwardian London sparkles as the perfect backdrop. The Christmas tree is still a work in progress, though by the time of its transformation it more closely resembles the set design of the fir trees in winter by Mikhail Bocharov than you’ll see in other productions.
Ice-skaters glide along the frozen Thames as the party guests arrive along with Drosselmeyer (in Hoffman’s story he lives outside time and is very sage) and his nephew (Daniel Jones and Yonah Acosta). Jones inhabits the character and gives him musicality; during the party scene his piano playing must surely have rivalled Mozart – had we heard it. It’s not long before Drosselmeyer, dressed in a powdered white wig and bronze tights, is setting fire to a handkerchief and introducing a giant puppet theatre to entertain the guests with his magical tricks.
As with the audience on a family friendly matinee, it’s not long before the small children are excited and over-wrought in equal measure, squabbling over the Nutcracker doll given to Clara, which you know is going to break. Drosselmeyer is on hand to mend the doll, and once the party is over, Clara returns to her bedroom to dream. As she does so, midnight strikes and her dream becomes a nightmare as the Mouse King looms over her bed and wakes her. Her first thought is to find the Nutcracker doll, as the mice gather and the living room is transformed.
This is where we first see Venus Villa, in her debut as Clara, terrified but bravely fighting with the mice and trying to protect the Nutcracker, who is injured in the fighting. More mice appear with a giant mousetrap and throw cheese at the soldiers. There are galloping horses, gunshots and smoke.
Much has been made of the confusing nature of the swapping of the Nutcracker and the Nephew back and forth. If you are familiar with the company then it’s not such a big deal – all dancers partner differently. Laurent Liotardo, as the Nutcracker, dances a pas de deux with Villa as the scene around them becomes frosty, the Christmas tree turns to glitter and snowflakes appear. Villa dances tenderly with the injured nutcracker, and by the time they arrive in the Land of Snow (in Vsevolozsky’s original adaptation of Hoffman’s story it is Confitürembourg), Acosta has become the Nutcracker and a very different dynamic ensues.
Interestingly the scenes you probably know best from The Nutcracker – such as the Waltz of the Snowflakes and the divertissement are not part of Hoffman’s story. Neither was the tradition of setting the Nutcracker at Christmas of particular importance in imperial theatres. Essentially, the whole of the Nutcracker was intended as a divertissement.
Senri Kou, as a Lead Snowflake is very sharp and frosty with perfect musicality. The Mouse King keeps appearing and when Clara and The Nutcracker jump into the hot air balloon with Drosselmeyer, the Mouse King is hot on their tail, trailing behind on the ropes.
In Act Two the hot air balloon lands with the Mouse King still attached. Daniel Jones has quite a regal way with the mice but still, they are pesky and no amount of sand bags will shift them.
In this production, Clara and the Nutcracker don’t watch the divertissements which are introduced by Drosselmeyer and there is no Sugar Plum Fairy. Adela Ramirez, in the Spanish dance, made the most of having the space on stage with her innate musicality and flair. The Arabian dance fares less well – inexplicably with slaves and a whip – in a children’s ballet. It’s a bit too Indiana Jones with an undercurrent of something distasteful. The Chinese dance is very well danced. Shiori Kase has a natural affinity with the music. The Russian dance is very impressive with Pedro Lapetra wild to the point of feral. The Mirlitons, danced by Ksenia Ovsyanick, partnered by Drosselmeyer is an unusual take on the piece and they dance it beautifully.
And then we have the Waltz of the flowers where Chantel Roulston and Fabian Reimair stood out.
Villa & Acosta dazzle in their gold and white finery, she in a tutu dripping with Swarovski elements, and they dance a technically difficult pas de deux with plenty of attack overlaid with a velvety softness, flowing with the music and the beautiful Celesta*. Villa is like a lighthouse, beaming out through any amount of fog. Though she is tiny she shines so fiercely on stage that even the furthest corners of the auditorium glow, in a way that Acosta is still learning. Villa dances with all her heart and really cares about the characters around her – the way she interacts with them is very touching. Surely she is due a promotion ? Acosta has the technical facility and is an attentive partner. Both were nervous and the vast stage of the Coliseum isn’t for the feint-hearted but they grew into their partnership.
The Flowers return and there’s some very nice choreography for ten of the male dancers of the company dressed in light grey against the pink of the flower tutus. Finally Clara is swirling like the snowflakes and finds herself back in bed.
Part of the difficulty with staging The Nutcracker concerns Hoffman’s original tale, and the back-story of the characters which isn’t easily translated into a ballet. For example the battle of the mice and the transformation of the Nutcracker just happen in the ballet. In the book both events have deeper motivations not hinted at in the ballet. More importantly, in the story and original adaptation, any suggestion that these events happened to Clara in a dream were ruled out. By making the events real-life, the characters have more depth and questions arise such as : does Clara marry the Nutcracker ? Do her parents worry about her while she is in the Land of Snow ? Hoffman answers these questions and I’d like to see some of these elements woven into the story.
As it is, The Nutcracker is a glorious confection of delights that will send you waltzing out of the theatre on a sugar rush, hoping for snow. And there’s nothing wrong with that as box office takings from not one but four Nutcracker productions in London this holiday season will testify.
The Nutcracker is in rep until 30th December 2011
The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov, Roland John Wiley
See Venus & Yonah rehearsing for this performance
*Listen to the Celesta played during the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance