Review: English National Ballet - The Nutcracker- London Coliseum

Performance: 11 December 2014 - 4 January 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 15 December 2014

English National Ballet's 'The Nutcracker'  Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 13 December

The ‘N’ in the title of ENB could stand for Nutcracker given that this seasonal ballet has been so deeply entrenched in the company’s DNA since its foundation (as London Festival Ballet) in 1950. Over the past 60 years, ENB’s annual December seasons have become as integral to enhancing London’s Christmas spirit as the Oxford Street lights.

Wayne Eagling’s production is the tenth iteration of (The) Nutcracker in the company’s repertoire. His rush to finish the ballet in time for its opening night, in 2010, was illuminated by a TV documentary (part of the Agony & Ecstasy series for BBC4). With just a day to go, Eagling still had six minutes of choreography left to complete and he was filmed in ponderous mood – pipe in hand – wandering around the car park of the ENB HQ in Jay Mews. Five years later and there is still some evidence of ongoing tinkering as his sometimes surreal but nonetheless Christmassy production begins to settle into its maturity. Each previous Nutcracker at ENB has lasted for an average of six or seven years and so this one might be in its finished form by the time it is retired.

In Eagling’s production, the whole of the second act is a fantasy constructed from the dream of a young girl (Clara) following her parents’ Christmas Eve party. The dream has been inspired by the presence of the magical Dr Drosselmeyer and his nephew, for whom young Clara has developed a crush. During the party, Drosselmeyer has presented Clara with a Nutcracker doll and in her subsequent dream, the doll and the nephew become one. In many productions, Clara and the nephew/Nutcracker are generally observers of events in the second act (often referred to as the Kingdom of the sweets, but not in this production). In place of the sweetie realm, Eagling’s vision is that the puppet theatre from the party comes to life in Clara’s dream (a Kingdom of the marionettes, perhaps). In this context it is the grown-up Clara and the nephew who perform the concluding grand pas de deux, having become the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.

The effect of all this is to combine two female roles into one, the ingénue Clara and the elegant, womanly Sugar Plum, while at the same time splitting the male roles into two with separate dancers as the Nutcracker doll and the nephew (who is also combined with the Prince). Got it? Actually, many audience members did not since those around me were clearly surprised when Max Westwell removed his Nutcracker mask at the curtain call to reveal that he was not Fernando Bufalá, who had danced the role of the nephew.

Leaving aside how uncomfortable it must be to dance full-blooded pas de deux wearing a rigid face mask (where does the sweat go?), I find the transition between the masked Nutcracker and the unmasked nephew to be a serious distraction during Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful love theme towards the end of Act 1. It is a changeover that has little sense of theatre: the Nutcracker limps off, Clara dances alone for a bit and then Drosselmeyer marches back on with the nephew, dressed identically but without the mask. It is awkward to say the least. I should have just closed my eyes, because the newly-named English National Ballet Philharmonic, conducted by Gavin Sutherland, gave an exceptionally fine account of this glorious music.

Tamara Rojo is remarkably successful in accomplishing the seamless transition from the young Clara (Sereina Mowlem) to the grown-up version of her dreams. As in the character of Juliet, it is astonishing how Rojo peels away the years to become an excited, wide-eyed teenager on stage. Endearingly expressive, she projects and captivates through an object lesson in stagecraft. The lyricism in her yearning solo dancing through the “petit” pas de deux was explicitly soulful, more than making up for the awkward choreography in the duet that precedes it (not helped, I might suggest, by the aforementioned mask). Rojo has an abundance of virtuosity in the turning and balancing aspects of her art and the Sugar Plum Fairy’s choreography is well matched to the best of her attributes, although it would be disingenuous not to allude to a couple of minor errors along the way.

Bufalá – like Rojo, also originally from Madrid – was a replacement for the indisposed Junor Souza, and although he was generally secure and regally handsome, his relative inexperience was betrayed by a momentary lapse in partnering and through a more cautious variation than we have been used to seeing in this role. It wasn’t a great evening for partnering since Yonah Acosta was also notably out of synch in the Spanish dance.

If children dominate the first act, the second is certainly more adult both in terms of performers and content. One of the more bizarre aspects of Eagling’s original choreography was to have a grown-up Freddie (Clara’s brother) as a kind of kidnap victim in the Arabian dance, bound and whipped by a sultan while four nubile females danced around them. Thankfully, the bondage has gone, although the whip remains.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Eagling struggled to finish the steps in time is that there are so many of them. It is a veritable feast of ballet and the national dances of the second act are particularly outstanding: of special note were Madison Keesler in the Spanish number; an excellent Chinese dance by Senri Kou, Shevelle Dynott and Nathan Young; and a rumbustious Russian dance, led by the ebullient Pedro Lapetra. The puppet theatre mysteriously changes into a garden where the waltz of the flowers becomes another excellent divertissement with Laurretta Summerscales and Alison McWhinney in fine fettle as the lead blooms. James Streeter was an effectively mysterious Drosselmeyer and – in the background corps – Ksenia Ovsyanick was always sublimely shaped with beautiful line extending through to the very tips of her fingers.

With its unusual outdoors scenes including a hot air balloon and skaters along the frozen Thames, there is a special sense of an affluent, Dickensian Christmas in Peter Farmer’s designs, which – without being at all derivative of other versions – manage to convey an effective sense of tradition. There are 27 performances of this unique Christmas treat still to come, including – at the 3rd January matinee – the final performance of Elena Glurdjidze (in the role of Clara), a wonderful ballerina who has graced the English National Ballet for the past dozen years. We shall miss her.

Continues at the London Coliseum until 4 January

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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