Cultural institutions can become quickly established. A full Nutcracker wasn’t shown in England until 1934, and in America until 1944. Now, in traditional stagings, with swathes of snow, tutus, Chrsitmas trees and rats and that forever fey Sugar Plum Fairy, it has become integrated into the experience of Christmas for many. (Let’s leave aside any comment on commercialisation of the same!)
London offers, this season, two Nutcrackers (English National Ballet, Royal Ballet) and Birmingham one. (let’s leave asdide too the many touring productions on offer from various stalwart companies). Birmingham and London share a director, Peter Wright, who has made two versions, of this Chritmas treat. The Birmingham Royal Ballet version is I gather seminal (and like his Swan Lake “the best to watch”.) I regret I have yet to see it, and wished to see the sublime Delia Mathews, and the noble Brandon Lawrence in it, recently but could in the end, not.
I am offering thoughts on the ENB production, and my two viewings of Royal Ballet’s. With two ENB to come (Rojo and Cojocaru).
I saw Frederico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson on one night, and Steven McRae and Iana Salenko on another in the RB production. Bonelli was a late replacement for Matthew Golding, whose absence I felt rather keenly. Golding’s noble lines are perfect for princely roles and classical work become him. Bonelli by no means offered a poor show, it was solidly given, and he paired Cuthbertson admirably, but I had wanted Golding. Still, I enjoyed Bonelli’s performance.
Cuthbertson herself is tall, with lines that command attention. I recall her work in the Grand pas was solid throughout, but lacking a little bit of glister. Their glorious costumes in gold and white looked wonderful.
In both versions Clara was played by perfectly chosen Francesca Hayward. The moment the curtain opened and she twirls in excitment, I felt thrilled. She was throughout fully believable and delightful in characterisation. Her dancing was no less exquisite, though in places her inflection of the head – tending towards demure, looked instead slightly awkward. No matter really. With a body and neck that tapers elegantly, and gifted with clever feet, she is lovely to watch.
So too her Nutcracker/Nephew Alexander Campbell. Not the tallest dancer in the RB ranks, he is solid and stocky. The body type serves him well. So too in his acting and mime he was clear and commendable. His turn in the Trepak was excellent. A pleasure to watch, and at that, to watch twice.
Yasmine Naghdi was the Rose Fairy both times. Dancing the modern classics most recently before this classical role must have meant a little bit of of getting back into it the classical idiom. She was wonderful in the role, tackling its lustrous little jetes and tours with ease and grace, but I detected a small hint of nerves at the first night in her technique. Those same hands, the same commitment to the role no matter how minor, came through though.
To turn to McRae, himself a turning machine, and Salenko. The two continue to reveal themselves as an ideal partnership. At the adagio of the piece Salenko began to present a truly beautiful reading. Form followed music, which came alive on stage. As with her Odette, Salenko revels in these quieter, slower sections. They are much her strength, and to see that alone was worth the trip. The rest of the Grand Pas was not quite up to that high standard. Had it been, I should never have forgotten it. But in its variations and coda there was brio, verve and energy throughout, especially from McRae. I fondly recall how he held his arms out for the ballerina in a kind of “run to me!” way, as if he was a father ready to sweep his small children up in his arms and elevate them to dizzy heights: there was a happiness there, and an unfeigned pride which all watching must have felt. Bravi.
And then there is Gary Avis. Does a more perfect Drosselmeyer walk the stage anywhere on the globe? Glitter suits him, tricks were fun, but above all he gives us the magic, the poise and the glint in the eye that tells us that magic is afoot. And in his hug for Nephew at the end, beautiful munificence. Give the man an Honour.
The ROH Orchestra played well under Boris Gruzin’s baton, but the music somehow felt muted, sounding to fall on more of a “by rote” end of the scale than full Romantic abandon.
And so to English National Ballet’s version. Wright’s production has the better mise en scene of domestic life, but I enjoy ENB designer Peter Farmer and choreographer Wayne Eagling‘s framing device. Clara goes to sleep, is awakened by a Rat/Mice dancer, flees in terror into the wings, and then the mature dancer (here, Lauretta Summerscales) emerges immediately from upstage right, running.
As has been mentioned in other reviews, having two dancers play the Nutcracker/Nephew role has the potential to become confusing for new comers and irksome for those who even are ready for it. Junor Souza was all Hollywood smiles as Newphew/Prince, but his variation in the grand pas looked a little effortful. This isn’t too much of a big deal though, I’ll remember his tricorn hatted appearance, and goregously gentlemanly politese for some time. Summerscales was delightful acted and just as strongly danced, if being chucked around in ballroom esque steps, which passes for much ballet nowadays can be said to be dance.
Strongest in show was the Flower Waltz entire, satisfyingly – in pastiche almost- Petipean. Long lines, partnership throughout, two strong leading flowers. Much better than the ROH version for feeling illustrative of the music.
Rat King was fantastic for such a thankless role. Fabien Reimar‘s Drosselmeyer was engaging and avuncular, but the piece doesn’t allow for the metaphysical, for the mysteries of Christmas which Wright’s does, and compared to Avis, all are ciphers. In the ENB version, the Rat King (the fantastic Anton Lukovkin) is the one who makes the tree grow.
And here the effect was somehow – madly -even better than at the ROH. This was down to the fabulous ENB Orchestra. Richness of sound – lush, almost – emphasis of statement and a permission to indulge came from the baton of Misato Tomita and it came through into the balcony. Lustrous in the moments of climax, truly delicate (Flute Dance) or breezy (Trepak Dance) as needed, all sounded great. The ROH Orchestra sounded slightly dry, sherry like/ The ENB were all bubbles, sparkle. Critics may deem the show more Proseco than Champagne, but effervescence and delight buzzed through the Coliseum after.
Hopefully next year too, I will get to see the BRB version!