Wayne Eagling’s Nutcracker is a strange hybrid of an old-fashioned family treat and sub-Freudian meanderings.
Of all the 19th-century ballets, The Nutcracker is the one that appears most often in strikingly different versions. The basics are a blissful Tchaikovsky score and a rough plotline: the rest is up to whoever mounts the production at the time.
There are traditional productions by choreographers such as Peter Wright and George Balanchine. There are zingy, modern Nutcrackers (most notably by Mark Morris and Matthew Bourne) and there is even a Nutcracker: R Rated, where the action contains a strip show.
For the past decade, English National Ballet has performed a production dominated by Gerald Scarfe’s designs: now the company’s artistic director Wayne Eagling has rightly decided it is time for change. But what he has come up with is a strange hybrid of an old-fashioned family treat – and sub-Freudian meanderings.
Its triumph is the Christmas party with which it opens. After a short interlude, in which the heroine Clara and her family get ready, snow starts to fall and, in a brilliant stroke of theatrical magic, skaters appear on stage, gliding to the sturdy Victorian house represented in Peter Farmer’s designs.
Once the action switches inside a rather brown living room, Eagling fluently fills it with dance, one section flowing gently into the next. Drosselmeyer, a guest with a sideline in magic, brings along his nephew (Vadim Muntagirov), on whom Clara clearly has a crush. Her sister, Louisa, dances with three competitive suitors. And Drosselmeyer’s puppet show prefigures the action to come.
So far, so nicely detailed. But where Eagling loses his way is in the transformation scene, where the tree grows and the comforts of hearth and home become a frightening land. Tchaikovsky’s music (beautifully conducted by Gavin Sutherland) makes this quite explicit; but Eagling muffs its effects. Clara wakes from a dream, and is suddenly transformed into the adult Daria Klimentová. At the point where the tree should grow, the Nutcracker (Junor Souza) appears from a cupboard and dances a rather limp solo. The same lack of dramatic impact afflicts the whole scene. The battle between the rats and the soldiers has a lot of movement and not much purpose. Indeed, the King Rat survives to follow Clara and her Nutcracker into the land of snow, where he chases around among the whirring snowflakes.
At key points, the Nutcracker is changed into Drosselmeyer’s nephew and then back again. This represents the ebb and flow of Clara’s nightmarish dream, but it is very confusing.
In the Land of Sweets, now inside Drosselmeyer’s Puppet Theatre, the lack of clarity persists. Farmer’s designs are pretty but dark, and the Arabian dance contains a surprising prisoner whom Clara must release. The choreography throughout is vigorous rather than memorable, and Clara and the nephew become the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.
On the plus side, Klimentová and Muntagirov perform with finesse, the entire company looks strong and the children playing Clara and her brother Freddie – Lowri Shone and Joseph Sissons – are an absolute delight. And there is a giant balloon.
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