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Birmingham Royal Ballet - Nutcracker - December 2007

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Sir Peter Wright created BRB’s current production of the Nutcracker in 1990 and I have seen it every year since. Every year I think I am suffering from Nutcracker fatigue and every year it has come up as fresh as a daisy and enthralled me anew.

Sir Peter has tried to resolve the story so that there is a coherent link between acts 1 and 2 and, in my opinion, has succeeded.

The party in act 1 is at the family home of a former ballerina, her husband and two children. Clara is their teenage ballet student daughter and Fritz their slightly younger son. The guests all bring their children. The scene opens with the final preparations for the party and, as the candles on the tree are about to be lit, everyone is spellbound and steps back except for Clara who starts moving towards the tree, thus setting the scene for the later happenings. Drosselmeyer is a magician who has been hired to entertain the party. Using the retired ballerina device gives more dancing opportunity for this party than in many Nutcrackers I have seen and there are dances for the adult guests, the teenagers and the children. Some cadets are at the party to dance with the teenage girls and there is a lovely ensemble for them all. The setting is opulent and Christmassy in red and green. There are some magic tricks to entertain the children and, even though I worked out long ago how they were done they still enthral me. Clara is presented with a ballet-dancer doll by her grand-parents and Fritz with a set of toy soldiers. Clara is, of course, presented with the Nutcracker doll by Drosselmeyer.

After the party, Clara comes downstairs to retrieve the Nutcracker doll and is attacked by rats and some of the doll characters presented by Drosselmeyer to the party. Drosselmeyer takes control and the transformation scene happens. This must be the best transformation scene ever as the tree grows and grows and eventually only the lowest of the branches are visible. The rats come through the fireplace and the soldiers march out of the box under the Christmas tree. You can hear audible gasps of excitement from the audience as the fire glows and the last of the transformation is in place….

There then follows a frenetic battle scene in which Clara saves the Nutcracker Doll/Prince from certain death. He is lying motionless on the floor as the rats escape and as she is crying at the stage he comes to life as the Prince. There follows a most beautiful duet for them. It is so beautiful that you really do not notice that the scene has transformed again into a snow scene that heralds the arrival of the snow flakes.

At the start of act 2, Clara arrives in a magical kingdom on the back of a flying swan (again gasps of amazement from the audience) and is greeted by Drosselmeyer, dancers from exotic lands and the Nutcracker Prince. There is a recap of the battle with King Rat being vanquished a thrown into a cage before being taken off by the soldiers. Then the fun starts with the diverts from various countries. Clara is involved in some of the dances. After the waltz of the flowers, Drosselmeyer asks her if she wants to be the ballet-dancer doll and within a flurry of dancers she is transformed into the Sugar Plum fairy. She and the Nutcracker Prince then dance the grand pas. At the end, when all the dancers are involved in the finale she transforms back to Clara and falls asleep in the Prince’s arms. He places her by the tree and she wakes up in her own home.

Over the last two weekends, I saw four casts over five performances. Carol-Anne Millar was Clara in four of the performances. She has lots of attack on stage and a wonderful bouncy leap and a very natural acting style and can only be described as fabulous in all the performances I saw. Lei Zhao was the other Clara I saw – she has a much softer style of dancing and was delightful as both Clara and (in other performances) the Rose Fairy. I also saw Lei as a delectable Sugar Plum in one performance with Dominic Antonucci as her Prince.

New transferee from the Royal, Natasha Oughtred was a delicate and lovely Sugar Plum with the elegant and supportive Jamie Bond as her Prince.

On Friday evening, Alexander Campbell made his debut as the Prince with Momoko Hirata as his Sugar Plum. It was a really exciting evening and I’ve got to admit to having a silly grin plastered over my face for most of it! He danced with real attack and pazazz and looked as though he was really having a ball. Momoko Hirata is such a tiny little dancer but she fills the stage with grandeur and eloquence. This was a very memorable performance.

I was privileged to see Nao Sakuma and Chi Cao give two performances. Nao has a wonderful technique and a lovely warm stage presence. Chi is a virtuoso classical dancer who is always a joy to watch. His solos were spectacular and his partnering secure and sensitive. It is no wonder that recent reviews (of Paquita in the autumn mixed programme) have described him as having “enough Russian soul to launch the Potemkin” (Jeffrey Taylor/Sunday Express) and as having “the best technique of any man in British or American ballet today, and stylish with it too” (John Perceval/Danceview Times). He also has a warm and natural acting style.

This must be the best Nutcracker around and with great performances too!

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Yes, thank you very much for describing this so vividly.

I'm struck by some of the similarities -- but especiall the differences -- with Peter Wright's version for the Royal Opera Ballet (which I've just rewatched on dvd). I much prefer the ending you describe to the Royal's.

After the waltz of the flowers, Drosselmeyer asks her if she wants to be the ballet-dancer doll and within a flurry of dancers she is transformed into the Sugar Plum fairy. She and the Nutcracker Prince then dance the grand pas. At the end, when all the dancers are involved in the finale she transforms back to Clara and falls asleep in the Prince’s arms. He places her by the tree and she wakes up in her own home.
It's a wonderful way to transition back to home and has the effect of making Clara -- not Drosselmeyer and his nephew -- the central character.
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Thank you for that, JMcN!

I haven't seen BRB in about a year and I'm looking forward to seeing them again when I next get a chance. Good to see Oughtred is getting principal roles; I like her dancing and assume that's why she transferred from Covent Garden. I also liked Millar very much but I saw her in a very non-classical role - the Chosen One in Rite of Spring (she was the best of the bunch). Very fond also of Sakuma, particularly in Scenes de Ballet.

A couple of questions - How does Wright's version compare for you with other Nutcrackers? Did they perform in the Hippodrome? And what's up next in the season?

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Leigh - it was indeed performed at the Hippodrome. BRB have not really toured this production - it was Sir Peter Wright's "gift" to the City of Birmingham. They performed it at the Lowry over Christmas 2000 and at the Lyceum in London a couple of years before that.

It is absolutely my favourite production. I do not think the version that the RB do, also by Sir Peter Wright is a patch on this.

This year, David Nixon has created a new version for Northern Ballet Theatre, which is also a delight. He has set the ballet in Regency England and has designed the most ravishing costumes for the production. David has produced a very traditional version with Drosselmeyer as a benevolent and well-travelled Uncle. Clara has an older sister with a boyfriend who transform into SPF and her Prince, linking the two acts together. The tree does not visibly grow in this production, it has already grown when the scene opens at midnight. This is my only minor gripe.

I remember with great fondness two previous English National (London Festival) Ballet - one by Ronald Hynd and one by Peter Schauffuss which I still think had the best snow flakes.

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PS - BRB's Spring season opens towards the end of February with Sir Peter Wright's production of Swan Lake - very traditional and very beautiful. The Spring mixed programme is an all David Bintley jazz programme consisting of Shakespeare Suite (Duke Ellington), Take Five (Brubeck) and Orpheus Suite (Colin Towns). I'm not a jazz fan but all three of these ballets are stunning. I think Colin Towns Masque Orchestra will be playing, and judging by last time around, they will be sensational. Robert Parker, who retired recently, was the original lead in all three works so the new casting will be interesting. On the male side, as well as Chi Cao's classical virtuosity and Iain Mackay's vitality there are some super young dancers coming through - Alexander Campbell, Tyrone Singleton and Joseph Caley. It promises to be a very exciting season.

The Company is again splitting in two in late Spring for their now annual NE and SW tours. The NE programme consists of Concerto Barocco, Twilight (Van Manen) and Take Five. The SW tour consists of Dante Sonata, Small Worlds (Kit Holder) and Elite Syncopations.

There is a Stravinsky programme and Giselle in the Summer and Beauty and the Beast (David Bintley) has already been announced for Cardiff and Plymouth in the Autumn.

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