Wayne Eagling’s new production of The Nutcracker, which coincides with the English National Ballet’s sixtieth anniversary, combines strong dancing with an attention grabbing concept and a wealth of human interest.
Although on the surface it may seem more traditional than the Gerald Scarfe and Christopher Hampson production that it replaces, it does introduce new characters, enhance the Mouse King’s role and genuinely divide the part of the Nutcracker between two dancers.
Such innovations work well because, if anything, they move the plot closer to E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the original story upon which Tchaikovsky based his ballet
In this instance, the first scene takes place in Clara’s bedroom. This immediately exposes us to the human element that runs right through the production as we see her and her sister dressing up for the party, fighting over ‘mirror time’, and being scared by their brother with a toy mouse. This leads onto a street scene, in which people actually skate across the stage, before the grand party at the Stahlbaums’ house begins.
Clara’s elder sister Louise (Ksenia Ovsyanick) is an addition to the plot and adds interest by being pursued by three suitors (Pedro Lapetra, Anton Lukovkin and Max Westwell). When Drosselmeyer (Fabian Reimair) appears he brings a puppet theatre whose figures fleetingly adopt the roles of the Harlequin, Columbine, Vivandière and Soldier before Louise and her suitors dance these characters’ parts. Grandmother and Grandfather join Mother and Father in the festivities, while the young Lowri Shone and Joseph Sissons excel as the child Clara and her brother Freddie. The excitement of the party is also captured in the corps de ballet’s exuberant routines, and it is pleasing to see the children (all students from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and the Royal Ballet School) having such a major role and dancing with such accomplishment.
The midnight battle with the mice is also dramatic, creating a real sense of the pandemonium of battle. This is no neat regimental affair in which the vermin line up against the toy soldiers with one side finally forcing the other back. As the mice swirl and leap in a variety of formations, detachment after detachment of soldiers burst on, either to be destroyed immediately or to engage in hand to hand fighting. There are also some lovely touches such as the mice using a trap laid for them against their opponents, and a cupboard suddenly transforming into a fortress.
In this production the Mouse King (James Streeter) is not defeated immediately, but pursues Clara and the Nutcracker through the Land of Snow before finally being brought to his knees in Act Two. The greatest innovation, however, lies in the manner in which the role of the Nutcracker is divided between two dancers: Junor Souza who plays the Nutcracker himself and Vadim Muntagirov who portrays Drosselmeyer’s Nephew. This works because it is actually more in keeping with Hoffmann’s original novel where the relationship between the Nutcracker and the Nephew is quite complex. The two characters frequently interchange to dance with the adult Clara (Daria Klimentová), although, of course, it is the Nephew who stands over the defeated Mouse King.
All three lead performances are exceptional. Souza and Klimentová have a real chemistry, with Klimentová splaying her body at some wondrously fragile angles to convey the pair’s vulnerability, but ultimate trust in each other, in the face of the Mouse King’s threat. Perhaps the best individual performance, however, comes from Muntagirov who has the rare ability to combine strength and muscularity with speed, agility and lightness through the air. His Act Two pas de deux with Klimentová, and their subsequent solos consisting of fouettés and other frenetic movements, are quite extraordinary. Of course, this pair are no strangers to each other having played Siegfried and Odette in the ENB’s ‘in-the-round’ production of Swan Lake.
The Nutcracker Suite is also dramatic, transporting us back to the now life-sized puppet theatre from which the dancers spring forth. There is a strong element of story-telling in the dances so that the Arabian section reveals a master with his slaves. Clara actually frees one of them, which seems a better way of involving the principals in the Suite than having them join in certain dances (like the Russian dance) to which they are typically unsuited.
The Mirlitons’ dance is taken by Louise and her three suitors, and alludes to Classicism by seeing her decked out in a Botticellian dress. The Waltz of the Flowers rounds off the Suite well, and again an extra dynamic is introduced by having certain couples momentarily freeze while others swirl around them. With the costumes of red, white, pink and green also interacting well with the rich hewed backcloth of the puppet theatre and the glistening woodland of Peter Farmer’s set, Christmas ballet doesn’t come much better than this.