The Nutcracker: A Cracking Start to the Christmas Season

The Christmas season got underway in great style with English National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker opening to a packed house at the gorgeous Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. Nutcrackers have come in all shapes and sizes since Petipa’s original choreography for the Russian Maryinsky Ballet in 1892, from traditional to modern and from wacky to sinister. They all share Tchaikovsky’s exuberant score which provides endless ways to tell a magical Christmas story. ENB’s current production was created by the previous Artistic Director Wayne Eagling in 2010, with designs by Peter Farmer. Eagling said he wanted to tell a traditional story but one that explored its darker sides, and he focusses on a young girl named Clara who falls in love with Dr Drosselmeyer’s nephew when they meet at her parents’ Christmas Eve party.

English National Ballet. "The Nutcracker".

Photography by Patrick Baldwin

Act I is traditionally dominated by the party scene which can get a bit tedious, but ENB’s production has lots of excitement to keep the story moving. It opens with the guests arriving by ice skating on the frozen Thames. There is much hilarity as inept skaters tumble and fall on the ice. Dr. Drosselmeyer, a rather mysterious family friend, arrives with his nephew and performs magic tricks for the guests. We then see the party in a freeze-frame moment which bursts into life at the click of Drosselmeyer’s fingers. The acting is as important as the dancing in this scene and the cast didn’t disappoint.

Annabella Sanders and James Lovell made their debut appearances in the roles of the young Clara and her brother Freddie. They were delightful, especially Lovell’s geeky mannerism of pushing his glasses back onto his nose. Amber Hunt was a convincing hunched-up granny indulging in a Christmas tipple. Hunt demonstrated her versatility with a total change of style in the sinuous Arabian dance in the second act. Zhanat Atymtayev made his debut appearance as Drosselmeyer, which is a difficult role in this production. He is on stage through most of the show and required to do a lot of partnering in addition to portraying his creepy brand of magic. Atymtayev’s dancing was precise and well-timed; I look forward to him developing his own Drosselmeyer character further as the season progresses.

After the party, Clara dreams of the handsome Nutcracker doll that Drosselmeyer gave her for Christmas. The Nutcracker is attacked by the evil Mouse King and his army of scraggy mice, and an energetic battle between the two sides, symbolising good and evil, ensues. James Streeter danced the Mouse King and the audience loved him. Streeter is making a name for himself in such character roles, after appearing as the evil fairy Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty earlier this season. His Mouse King was not so much sinister as naughty and cheeky. He scurried and twitched and taunted his opponent, a range of emotions not easy to convey in a bulky costume and a large mouse’s head covering his own!

Act I draws to a close with Tchaikovsky’s beautiful Waltz of the Snowflakes. After a rather clumpy start, where the thudding of pointe shoes was louder than the orchestra, the multitude of white-tutued dancers found their stride. The choreography didn’t make the most of Tchaikovsky’s ingenious syncopated rhythms, but the dancers’ timing was excellent and the group formations truly evocative of snowflakes.

Act II consists of a number of dances from countries around the world as Clara continues in her dreamscape. Interestingly, Eagling has transformed some of these into miniature stories of their own and the Arabian dance is one to watch out for. Three of the nominees for ENB’s prestigious Emerging Dancer award performed in the second act. Nancy Osbaldeston created the characteristic arm shapes required of the Spanish dance, but I wondered whether a slightly quicker tempo might have shown off her sharp technique to greater advantage. Laurretta Summerscales gave a lyrical and fluid interpretation of the Mirlitons where she seemed more at ease than in her first act role as Clara’s older sister. Nathan Young performed the Chinese dance, where he and Shevelle Dynott ably partnered Jem Choi; but I would like to see him dance something more taxing to find out what he’s really made of.

English National Ballet. "The Nutcracker".Photography by Patrick Baldwin

The finale is a pas de deux in the great tradition of the Russian Imperial ballet. Clara and the Nephew, danced by ENB’s Senior Principals Fernanda Oliveira and Dmitri Gruzdyev, pulled out all the stops to provide jump-jet leaps, mind-numbing spins, and breathtaking lifts. The audience cheered at this virtuosic display of classical ballet at its most exciting.

ENB’s Nutcracker is a real crowd-pleaser for all ages, as evidenced by the warm response from school children and senior citizens alike. If you have never been to the ballet, or are thinking about a trip to the theatre, this is an excellent choice. Go on, it’s Christmas!

Elizabeth McLean