Waltz of the flowers with artists of the Birmingham Royal Ballet Picture: Bill Cooper

The Nutcracker

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

JUST as the first sound of he cuckoo is the harbinger of spring, the delightful appearance of Birmingham Royal Ballet's Nutcracker at the Hippodrome has been the herald of Christmas, at least as far as the majority of the past 21 years have been concerned.

This year the production comes of age but it  is still as fresh, alive and sparkling as it was when Sir Peter Wright first created it in 1990 and it was a special moment when David Bintley, the BRB Director, announced before the performance that not only was Sir Peter in the audience but he was celebrating his 85th birthday.

Cue the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday.

The director also revealed that Saturday evening's performance (Nov 26) would be the 400th showing of the BRB's ballet, widely regarded as being one of the finest productions of The Nutcracker ever staged.

Sir Peter must have been a very happy birthday boy to see his creation brought to life in such splendid fashion.

It is always a pleasure to watch Robert Parker, who, sort of, left to become artistic director of Elmhurst in the summer, and as Drosselmeyer he is the flamboyant, elegant, slightly sinister ringmaster of the entire ballet, the magician who can conjure up all manner of characters to both frighten and entertain.

If he can teach half as well as he can dance Elmhurst School for Dance and BRB are in for some exciting times.

This is a ballet where everyone plays their part from the young pupils of Elmhurst as the excited children to the established names of BRB.

Robert Parker is magnificent as the magician Drosselmeyer, pulling all the strings in his world of fantasy Photo: Roy Smiljanic

Nao Sakuma as The Sugar Plum Fairy is every little girl's vision of a ballerina, the exquisite figure atop an expensive music box, and she dances exquisitely as well making the art of ballet look so easy and effortless.

 Any turns or spins by Nao do not move a fraction from the spot and her grand pas de deux with the excellent Jamie Bond as the Nutcracker Prince was a delight.

Another highlight was Victoria Marr in the Arabian dance. She is an Elmhurst graduate incidentally, and another dancer with that extra dimension. She might dance the same steps and make the same moves but somehow it is on another plane.

There were notable performances too from Laëtitia Lo Sardoas with her jerky dance as Columbine with Kit Holder as Harlequin and a lively contribution from Tzu-Chao Chou as the Jack-in-the-box.

Jenna Roberts shivered her way beautifully through a veritable blizzard as the Snow Fairy while Céline Gittins was an elegant Rose Fairy in the Dance of the Flowers

It was also good to see David Morse back, along with the indomitable Marion Tait, as the somewhat ancient Grandfather and Grandmother who perform not so much a pas as a past it de deux.

David retired in the summer but was then desperately ill and it was good to see him back on stage again in a role he made his own showing he is on the road to recovery.

The real star though was Carol-Anne Millar as Clara, the ballet student who dreams – or maybe not, who knows? - the secret world of the magician and the Nutcracker.

She dances like a dream with grace, vulnerability and no small degree of talent showing some wonderful technique.

Jenna Roberts as The Snow Fairy warmed the cockles of the heart with a performance of visual beauty amid the falling snow.  Photo: Roy Smiljanic

This is a ballet that relies on more than just the dancers though. The stage crew have some demanding changes to make, particularly in the Christmas Tree transformation which still brings gasps from the crowd, as well as a huge flying goose with flapping wings gliding across the stage at the opening of Act II.

We have a fireplace converting to the gates of some inferno of hell with King Rat, evil with a tail from Tyrone Singleton and his followers out to attack Clara who is defended by The Nutcracker and his toy soldiers.

If that is not enough there are changes to dark castles, forests, squares and palaces and back to a living room all in real time without a break – and the lads backstage did not seem to put a foot, fly or flat wrong.

The design is by John F Macfarlane, who was also responsible for last year's Cinderella, and I still love the opening house scene which is so reminiscent of elaborate Victorian model theatres. The whole thing is beautifully lit by David A Finn to create anything from doom to delight be lights alone.

As for the music . . . we have come to expect high standards from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Koen Kessels and they did not disappoint with Tchaikovsky's sumptuous symphonic score.

So raise your glasses and grab a mince pie, Christmas has officially arrived. To 11-12-11

Roger Clarke

 

And amid the tinsel and holly . . .

*****

ANY performance of The Nutcracker by the BRB is a special event, but the latest pre-Christmas production by the Pride of the Midlands must rate as a particular milestone.

It is the 21st anniversary of the spectacular ballet, and on Friday the creator, Sir Peter Wright, was at the opening night....on his 85th birthday. Cue for the audience to celebrate by singing 'Happy Birthday to You' accompanied by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

Nao Sakuma who brings her own undoubted qualities to the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  Photo: Steve Hanson

The following day saw the 400th performance of the ballet which is staged to Tchaikovsky's beautiful music, and Sir Peter must have been proud to see the public still responding enthusiastically to his work.

Carol-Anne Millar is a delight as 15-year-old ballet student Clara who, after a Christmas Eve party at her family home where she receives the gift of a nutcracker doll from the magician Drosselmeyer (Robert Parker), is transported to a fantasy world.

There she sees wonderful dances from around the world before waking from the dream.

Several scenes are simply breathtaking, starting with the Christmas tree sprouting to an enormous size, the fireplace in the Stahlbaum home expanding and giant rats led by the Rat King (Tyrone Singleton) battling against the Nutcracker and his life-size toy soldiers.

And there are gasps, followed by applause, when Clara flies across stage on a giant goose to the Land of Snow, at the start of the second act.

Great performances, too, from Nao Sakuma (The Sugar Plum Fairy), Jamie Bond (The Prince) and Tzu-Chao Chou (the Jack-in-the-Box).

This was ballet at its exquisite best, and among the VIP's on opening night was former England and Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor...if only his men-in-boots could have performed for the three lions with such immaculate skill.

Directed by David Bintley with Koen Kessels' musical direction, this ballet cracker runs to 11.12.11

Paul Marston 

Tickets are rapidly becoming like gold dust for the Birmingham run BUT Birmingham Royal Ballet are performing The Nutcracker again on an even bigger stage at the O2 Arena in Greenwich, London from December 27 to December 30 with matinees on December 28,29 and 30. Each performance will be introduced by 2009 X-Factor winner Joe McElderry.

We Will Dance You . . .

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