As a child, ballet lessons made me wince in pain, but two-and-a-half hours of The English National Ballet’s The Nutcracker passed in the blink of an eye, without even a grimace on the dancer’s behalf.
Wayne Eagling’s rendition of The Nutcracker for the English National Ballet, performed at The London Coliseum from the eleventh of December to the fifth of January 2019, was a wonderful watch with which to end the year.
Whilst a Monday Matinee performance left me wanting to repeat the unspoken codes of theatre etiquette – turn off your phone, silence the kids, and don’t spill your jelly-bean snacks down my back – it would have taken a series of sizeable distractions to divert my attention away from the stage during this performance.
Based on the popular children’s story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, The Nutcracker and The Mouse-King (1816), The Nutcracker ballet has undergone many adaptations since its debut showing in St. Petersburg in 1892. The ballet is now a mainstay of the English National Ballet’s repertoire and is frequently displayed upon the billboards of English theatres, such as those of the Royal Opera Theatre and The London Coliseum. However, the first British performance by the Vic-Well’s Ballet in 1934 was based upon choreographic notes smuggled from Russia. It would be too strong a statement to suggest that I am eternally grateful for this act of plagiarism for any intellectual reason, but this cultural staple is certainly entertaining, if not wildly thought-provoking.
The English National Ballet team were right to make this an aesthetic spectacle. Costume design began in 2010 and a decade later the four hundred costumes belonging to the production are embellished with ten thousand donated Swarovski crystals and, true of some tutus, include up to sixteen layers of material. The set-design is comparably ornate. The setting of the grand-hall is revealed after a long delay spent watching the skating-rink at the façade of the house, or limiting one’s view to a small wooden cut-out of Clara’s bedroom, which is lit by a spotlight front stage-right. However, the hall, lined with silk curtains, occupied by troupes of dancers, and filling the stage-space, becomes only the more impressive as a result of a wait to see inside. (It is worth noting that I felt Clara’s bedroom to be unfairly small given the dimensions of the rest of the house).
An extended battle-scene serves as an example of an attempt to foreground the darker, more-profound aspects of a tale about a traditional, snowy Christmas. For me, a battle of ballet-steps, punctuated by gun-shots, and fought between toy soldiers and rats, lacked impact. Having said that, the marching of the soldiers in canon was impeccably timed and, again, an appreciation of technical skill was forefront in my mind. The tinkling of the Celesta (a piano-like instrument mimicking the sound of glass bells) best fitted scenes which included the light-footed snowflakes and sugar-plum fairies, rather than revelling rodents. With his last score, Tchaikovsky is said to have ‘stooped low’ to represent the mind of a child in a ballet without serious intent. However, it is in this spirit of play that the elements of The Nutcracker combine to form a true masterpiece.
The second act, first introduced by George Kirsta and described as an ongoing ‘encore’ by my mum, was the most enjoyable for its abandonment of narrative. Making plot subsidiary to the dynamic movements of various ‘divertissements’ and being permitted to enjoy the spectacle for spectacle’s sake was all that I had been waiting for. As a lover of salsa, the splicing in of ‘Spanish’ ballet provided my favourite moment.
The nutcracker should be produced in the same spirit of fun embraced by its writers and composer, rather than with the burdening sense of needing to add serious themes to justify a weighty, cultural heritage.
All that remains is to thank my sister for gifting me a third of her birthday present in the shape of a ticket and to recommend a fun-motivated viewing of The Nutcracker without hesitation.