Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker at the 02 Arena

Performance: 27 -30 December 2011
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Wednesday 28 December 2011

Nutcracker at Birmingham Hippodrome 2011 from Rob Lindsay on Vimeo.

If it’s Christmas, it must be Nutcracker time. It’s hard to imagine a time when this most ubiquitous of Christmas ballets wasn’t popular – especially this year, when it seems impossible to move in the capital without tripping over a Sugar Plum. Sir Peter Wright’s loving reconstruction of the Imperial original has already been doing brisk festive business over at the Opera House; now his 1991 production for the Birmingham Royal Ballet comes to the cavernous confines of the O2 for Londoners to enjoy.
Ballet in big venues is not a wholly new thing – last summer’s Royal Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet at this very venue was warmly received – and yet there’s no mistaking the change in atmosphere the move to an arena space brings. The hollowness of the space is moderated to some extent by the wise provision of a proscenium arch framing the action; but there’s a noticeably gaping distance between the stage and almost every seat in the house, not entirely compensated for by the concert-style screen above the action.
Watching on the screen highlights a key problem with scale and detachment. The work is beautifully captured by former dancer Ross MacGibbon, who picks out helpful details on the stage while keeping the overall flow of action in the frame; but it’s hard to truly engage with a live performance mediated through a camera view. There were times when I wondered if it wouldn’t be just as enjoyable – and probably more comfortable – to sit and watch at home on TV.
BRB has nevertheless done a good job of attracting a wider demographic with this new outing – although the usual throngs of young girls in tiaras and pink tights were in evidence, so too were groups of adult friends who had never seen the ballet before. This reach in the direction of a younger and broader audience might also explain the otherwise baffling presence of 2009 X-Factor winner Joe McElderry singing us a trio of carols before the curtain.
Yawning venues and inexplicable warm-up acts cannot, fortunately, detract from the quality of this Nutcracker. Wright’s staging is rightly celebrated for balancing reverence towards Ivanov’s original choreography with narrative clarity, a welcome measure in an often-busy plot. Frau Silberhaus is in this version a former ballerina and her daughter Clara a ballet student, which perhaps explains the incredibly well-rehearsed petit gallop Clara and her friends greet the assembled guests with as they arrive at the family’s Christmas party.
The best guest is of course Drosselmeyer, ably danced by the charismatic Robert Parker, and his retinue of enchanted dolls. A clever series of magic tricks in the domestic first act smooth the transition to the second, as in Drosselmeyer’s supernatural hands almost anything seems possible.* Laetitia Lo Sardo* is just the right shade of winsome as Clara – sweet without being cloying, hovering en pointe between the sugar-coated fantasies of childhood and her first taste of adult romance in the pas de deux. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Nao Sakuma is also gorgeously quick and light.
From the party sequences to the Waltz of the Flowers, however, Wright’s Nutcracker is a ballet that celebrates ensemble work, and it’s here that BRB really shines. Mirlitons, snowflakes and flowers are meticulous and musical, and the vastness of the O2 stage gives the company dancers room to add a little more balon to the jetés, a little more elevation to the arabesques. It’s hard not to get swept along by the magic of Tchaikovsky’s rhapsodic score combined with the whirling beauty of the divertissements, and the company dancers meet the challenge of the space with relish.
As with any well-loved tradition, there will always be revisions and re-imaginings of The Nutcracker just as there will always be shameless borrowings of the timeless score for less imaginative purposes (I can’t deny the craving for a certain brand of raisin and almond chocolate that came over me during Act 2). But Wright’s version, with its celebrated expanding set, characterful set pieces and loving attention to detail in every step demonstrates that the original (or something very like it) is often the best. I’m unfortunately inclined to think the same goes for theatre spaces.

Continues at the 02 until Sat 30 Dec

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