The Nutcracker

Birmingham Royal Ballet

*****

IT was 1990 when Sir Peter Wright gave Birmingham The Nutcracker as its first Christmas present from the then newly arrived Birmingham Royal Ballet and it is a present which is still as fresh and enchanting today as it was 23 years ago.

And the magical transformation of the Stahlbaum’s family Christmas tree to a giant as Clara enters the world of dreams, toys and make-believe is still as breathtaking and awe inspiring today as it was then, a stunning monument to the set designers’ art from John Macfarlane and a a magnificent piece of stagecraft from the backstage crew.

The story of Tchaikovsky's ballet is simple. Dr Stahlbaum (Wolfgang Stollwitzer) has invited all his friends and relations to a party at his home on Christmas Eve where entertainment is provided by the mysterious and slightly sinister magician Drosselmeyer (Iain Mackay).

Nao Sakuma as The Sugar Plum Fairy and Chi Cao as her handsome Prince. Picture Steve Hanson

The magician gives presents to the children including a Nutcracker doll for the doctor’s 15-year-old daughter Clara, who is learning to be a dancer, and she is danced splendidly by the attractively girlish Momoko Hirata, who seems to have learned pretty well already.

The flamboyant Drosselmaeyer displays some real magic when Clara’s young brother (Finn McSherry) petulantly breaks the head off the Nutcracker and the mysterious entertainer replaces it from 10 feet away – another impressive effect.

The magician and his assistant (James Barton) then introduce us to Harlequin (Rory Mackay) and Columbine (Samara Downs) as well as a lively Jack-in-the-box (Tzu-Chao Chou), before the guests leave and the family go to bed. That should be it until Christmas morning but Clara sneaks downstairs to see her Nutcracker and enters another world when her toy (James Barton again) comes to life and with the help of a box of now life-size toy soldiers has to take on King Rat (Yasuo Atsuji) and his rampant rodents who come flooding out of the gates of hell, or at least the now giant fireplace.

The Nutcracker is in danger of losing the final bout until Clara wades in with the old one-tutu and lays King Rat out with a wallop behind the pointy ears with her shoe – you can’t beat a bit of violence in a children’s fairy tale.

Sadly though the wounded Nutcracker looks done for, but this is a fairy tale remember, so not only does he slowly recover but turns not only into a handsome Prince but also into Chi Cao as the set changes once more into the magical forest of the Snow Fairy, danced beautifully by Jenna Roberts and her attendants in the Land of Snow

King Rat emerges from the flames to do battle with The Nutcracker

The second act opens with Clara on the back of a giant snow goose heading for a magical land where  Drosselmeyer is again the ringmaster introducing Spanish dancers, Arabian dancers with Céline Gittens in a sensuous performance as a harem girl, a mad and funny Chinese dance from Max Maslen and Nathanael Skelton, a Russian trio and the dance of the Mirlitons leading up to the Dance of the Flowers, perhaps the best known music of the entire ballet.

That gave us Natasha Oughtred as The Rose Fairy and the superb Nao Sakuma as The Sugar Plum Fairy.

When Nao and Chi Cao are dancing well, and dance together, then God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. Both dance in their own time and make it look so easy and together are a delight to watch in the Grand pas de deux.

But every fairy tale must end and in yet another stunning transformation we are back to the Stahbaum house with Clara asleep under the tree. She awakes on Christmas morning to find her doll is just that – a doll.

The Nutcracker is a wonderful Christmas show full of charm, humour and magic for all the family and is packed with Tchaikovsky's tuneful music brought to life by the excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Koen Kessels.

Year after year it delights audiences of all ages, and now children at that first performance in 1990 bringing their own children. A tradition has become an institution. As far as Birmingham is concerned, Christmas has now officially started. To 12-12-13. 

Roger Clarke

 

Tchaikovsky's ballet, which premiered in St Petersburg in 1892, was based on German writer E.T.E. Hoffman’s fairy story of 1816, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and The Nutcracker is just that. A nut cracker . . . for cracking nuts. As simple as that.

Decorative nutcrackers carved in the shape of soldiers, knights and so on were, and indeed still are popular in Germany and the USA, particularly as Christmas decoration, and carvings by the likes of  Junghanel, Klaus Mertens, Karl, Olaf Kolbe, Petersen, Christian Ulbricht and especially the Steinbach nutcrackers have become valuable collectables.

The ballet Coppélia, incidentally, is based on two more Hoffman stories, The Sandman and The Doll.

 

And cracking nuts in the corner . . .

***** 

IT keeps coming back, and as a pre-Christmas pick-me-up Peter Wright's production of The Nutcracker simply can't be beaten.

Anyone needing a tonic before the hectic festivities should try to get a ticket for this brilliant ballet which is spectacular entertainment with its heart-warming story, wonderful dancing, lavish costumes and breath-taking sets by John Macfarlane.

Oh, and of course, there's Tchaikovsky's glorious music, played with such feeling by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Koen Kessels.

The story opens on Christmas Eve in the plush home of Dr Stahlbaum and his wife who are entertaining friends at a party, and their 15-year-old daughter, Clara, training to be a dancer, is given a nutcracker doll by the magician Drosselmeyer (Iain Mackay).

That sets off a chain of events which sees the family Christmas tree expanding from four metres to 15 metres, and the fireplace growing to fill a third of the stage in a stunning scene where the huge King Rat leaps from flames with his army and threaten Clara, but are engaged in a sword fight with the Nutcracker and his toy soldiers who come to life, leaping from their gift box.

There is a superb performance from Momoko Hirata as Clara, at one point flying 30 metres across stage on the back of a giant goose on the way to the Land of Snow where she joins a range of brilliant ballets by Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian dangers.

During that sequence, Nao Sakuma and Chi Cao are an absolute delight as the Sugar Plum Fairy and The Prince.

Christmas wouldn't be the same without The Nutcracker as a tasty first course. It runs to 12.12.13

 Paul Marston 

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