English National Ballet has performed The Nutcracker every year since it was founded in 1950. The latest version, by former company artistic director Wayne Eagling, had a rather traumatic creation, that was featured in warts-and-all BBC documentary, Agony and Ecstasy. The choreography was being changed until the last minute and there was a hot air balloon with no balloon on opening night (ie. a basket with strings!). But since then, this old-fashioned Edwardian Nutcracker has become a favourite with audiences and critics alike, and though Eagling is still not completely happy with his work (and makes edits each time it is staged), the ballet has a great deal of charm.
Of course, it is hard to find a Nutcracker without charm. The story of a young Clara, who dreams on Christmas eve that she battles an evil Mouse King, journeys through the snow and becomes the Sugar Plum Fairy, has a wonderfully festive spirit that appeals to young and old alike. And it is set to Tchaikovsky’s sublime score – played in this case to perfection by the orchestra of English National Ballet under the baton of Gavin Sutherland.
Eagling’s production has several weaknesses; the main being the confusion between the characters of the Nutcracker and the Nephew, who inexplicably swap places repeatedly – changing Clara’s dancing partner between her doll that has come to life and her girlish crush. Another is the wholly bizarre sadomasochistic Arabian dance in Act II, in which a slave master whips an adult incarnation of Clara’s brother. This just seems to have no place in such a sweet, family-friendly ballet.
Other elements are far more successful. The sense that Clara is dreaming is clearly conveyed, with scenes from the Christmas eve party replayed during her dreamland trip to the Kingdom of Sweets, and the Spanish, Russian and Chinese dances have vibrant and entertaining choreography.
English National Ballet’s dancers are on good form. James Streeter is a dramatic and compelling Mouse King and Fabian Reimair is a really magical Drosselmeyer, with tricks that both baffle and amuse. The Snowflakes shimmer beautifully, with two of my favourite company dancers, Laurretta Summerscales and Ksenia Ovsyanick, leading the way. Ken Saruhashi also impresses exceedingly with his firework-like pirouettes and jumps in the Russian dance.
In their Swarovski-encrusted costumes, however, it is leads Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov who shine brightest. They have a wonderful partnership and clearly love dancing together, as well as the highest level of technique, which makes even the trickiest steps (and the Sugar Plum pas de deux choreography in this production is exceptionally intricate and tricky) look relaxed. These two are worth the ticket price alone for their stunning duets and solos, with Klimentova gliding delicately across the floor and Muntagirov leaping effortlessly what seems like miles into the air.
I don’t think this Nutcracker is quite as exquisite as the version down the road at the Royal Opera House, but there is still plenty to like and it’s a great ballet to get you into the Christmas spirit.