Though this is now the third successive year in which Wayne Eagling’s production of The Nutcracker for English National Ballet has played the Christmas slot in the Coliseum calendar, it has lost none of its edge or charm.
Its strength lies in the way it combines a traditional Edwardian setting with a real sense of innovation. There are thoughtful touches throughout that aid the visual experience, while subtly introducing themes that are prevalent in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s original story.
Students from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and English National Ballet School play a leading role in the dancing during the party scene, which is fitting as this an occasion where children would naturally take centre stage. When Drosselmeyer (an effective Fabian Reimair) appears he brings with him 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. The degree to which Drosselmeyer becomes the orchestrator of events is also intriguing. He winds the grandfather clock forward to bring about the change at midnight, heals the wounded Nutcracker after the Mouse King (James Streeter) attacks him, and produces the balloon that whisks the heroes away from harm.
The Act Two Suite continues the puppet theatre theme, with performers from all over the world stepping out to deliver their various dances, Drosselmeyer silently introducing each act in turn. The lack of narrative thrust at this point has always been a headache for directors, with Peter Wright’s Royal Ballet production adding compensatory colour by seeing the principals join in certain dances, and Matthew Bourne creating tension by having Clara hunting for the Nutcracker. Eagling’s approach works as well as any, and the principals intervene in the drama without ever dominating the dancing.
The greatest innovation, however, lies in the manner in which the role of the Nutcracker is divided between two different dancers: James Forbat who plays the Nutcracker himself and Vadim Muntagirov who portrays Drosselmeyer’s Nephew. This is actually more in keeping with Hoffmann’s original novel where the relationship between the two is quite complex. The pair frequently interchange to dance with Daria Klimentová’s Clara, though, of course, it is the Nephew who stands over the defeated Mouse King.
Format and Klimentová have a real chemistry, with Klimentová splaying her body at fragile angles to convey the pair’s vulnerability, but ultimate trust in each other. But is Muntagirov who has the edge, with his clean lines and speed, his agility and lightness. His Act Two pas de deux with Klimentová, and their subsequent solos, consisting of fouettés and other frenetic movements, reveal much about these dancers’ techniques, not to mention energy. It helps that this pair are no strangers, having partnered each other regularly over the past three years, including in the very first performance of this production. Ksenia Ovsyanick is also excellent in the Dance of the Mirlitons, exuding elegance as her limbs create curves of classical beauty.
There are times when the dancing lacks a sense of unity, but this is partly as a result of the way this production is staged. The battle scene creates a tumbling, dynamic effect but The Land of Snow and the Waltz of the Flowers do have a unified feel. The latter dance is a real highlight, and the Orchestra of English National Ballet, under the baton of Benjamin Pope, performs strongly all evening, producing a vibrant yet focused sound.
On opening night, ENB’s new Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, awarded Vadim Muntagirov the title of Lead Principal Dancer, the highest rank anyone can achieve in the company. After such a strong performance, it seemed thoroughly well-deserved.
Casts vary over the run. For further details go to the English National Ballet website.