Review: English National Ballet in The Nutcracker at London Coliseum

Performance: 17 - 30 Dec 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 18 December 2008

It’s easy to grow so accustomed to a familiar friend that you overlook their qualities, which was a sentiment that blossomed and intensified in me through this performance of Christopher Hampson’s The Nutcracker. As Nutcrackers go, his version is still an infant – now in its seventh successive year – compared to Peter Wright’s romantic interpretation for the Royal Ballet, which is just a season short of its silver jubilee. But, it seems as if the Hampson Nut is about to be cracked and if English National Ballet is to extend an unbroken run of 58 years of mounting The Nutcracker at Christmas, it looks likely to be with another version from next year. Although there have been winters since 2002 where I’ve felt that I could easily do without it, now that its going, I find that I shall miss it.

It is unashamedly comic book: in fact, the characters – under the magician Drosselmeyer’s spell – step out of the pages of a story book at the very beginning. The colourful concept of Gerald Scarfe’s design veers quickly from fairy tale to cartoon (indeed Adam Pudney’s get-up as the randy Grandfather seems to be straight out of The Simpsons in a bizarre cross between Homer’s Dad and Krusty the Clown) and I find myself grieving this loss most of all; in particular the tiered chocolate bar grandstand and cherry-topped sundae mountain of the second Act; and the outlandish extended cartoon family of the first. It’s a concept that fits perfectly with such an extravagant Christmas fantasy.

I still have reservations about some of the choreography: particularly that Hampson does too little with the lush melodies of the Clara/Nutcracker pas de deux in Act I; but I also feel (increasingly with each viewing) that he scores highly with his Act II divertissements. There was a sensuous performance of the Arabian fan dance by Bego?a Cao and I admired Pedro Lapetra’s neat, high double turns in the air as the Russian bear (although my daughter felt that his costume looked more like a Gummy Bear); but there were also areas in the Spanish and Chinese dances where the performances were not up to spec. The latter certainly misses the dynamic presence of Yat-Sen Chang.

I loved Venus Villa’s sense of wonderment as the young Clara in a performance that was exactly right; and Erina Takahashi and Dmitri Gruzdyev performed an experienced, maturely paced and technically proficient Grand Pas de Deux as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. One has to admire Gruzdyev’s solid spinning turns – fouettés – which were firmly rooted on the same spot without the travel that seems to affect many other dancers these days.

I saw the Peter Wright version just two days’ earlier and the wonder of dance is that these two “chalk and cheese” interpretations of the Petipa choreographic structure for Tchaikovsky’s glorious score both work so well. I suspect (and hope) that the Wright version will be around for a few more years but I’m sorry to be losing this other good friend. There’s still hope though – audiences were told that ENO’s Magic Flute would not be performed again but it soon came back due to popular demand. Now there’s a thought for the Turkey wishbone.

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