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The Nutcracker

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"For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic fate of our ballet, one more step downward."

This was the unpromising review that greeted the first performance of Nutcracker - which, fortunately for us, survived to become perhaps the most popular, and certainly the most often performed, ballet of all time. For about two months around every Christmas, literally hundreds of versions are staged, not just by professional companies but also by dance schools. It is the traditional introduction for small children, and has given many thousands their first glimpse of classical ballet.

The original story on which Nutcracker is based was by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but on the way to becoming a ballet much of the 'grimmness' was discarded, leaving a distinctly thin plot and characters it is difficult to care much about. The child Clara dreams that the nutcracker doll given to her by her godfather, Drosselmeyer, turns into a handsome prince - but she remains a child, and the 'ballerina' role belongs to the Sugar Plum Fairy, who gets the big pas de deux and the prince. The main problem in staging Nutcracker today is finding some way of presenting the story to give it cogency and meaning for an adult audience, and of adding some spice to the sugar.

If it depended on its plot alone, Nutcracker would have long gone the way of so many other ballets of its era. What keeps it alive is Tchaikowsky's score. It is the third and last of his great ballets, and perhaps doesn't have the depth and romance of Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty - but it is very charming and very well known, and the final pas de deux is for me the grandest and most moving of all. Its first production, at the Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg in 1892, should have had choreography by the great Petipa, and indeed it was he who gave Tchaikovsky the detailed, minute-by-minute scenario to work from. But he fell ill, and it was his assistant Lev Ivanov who was appointed to replace him.

The closest to this original production is probably the Royal Ballet's current version - seen in a slightly revised production since the Opera House has reopened. Based on contemporary accounts and photographs, and such of the traditional choreography that seemed likely to be genuine, it is as near as it's now possible to get to Ivanov - which is not, one suspects, very near. The strange episode where the ballerina stands on pointe on a piece of cloth which is pulled along by the prince - quite as weird in reality as it sounds, and probably based on a misinterpretation of a famous picture - has been dropped in Wright's latest revision, and other changes have been made, mostly for the better. The story is a very straightforward retelling; in early performances Clara was played by a child (Sarah Wildor intially) but later on a young dancer from the company took the role.

Previously the Royal Ballet had a very different production by Nureyev, who gave a very different slant to the story by not only letting Clara become the ballerina heroine in Act ll, but also having Drosselmeyer and the Prince played by the same dancer - lots of scope for Freudian interpretations there.

Perhaps the best known version by a British company was Festival Ballet's 1957 production, with choreography by David Lichine and designs by Benois. Nutcracker has always been Festival/ENB's bread and butter, and this one had many hundreds of performance over many years. When it was finally abandoned, several others followed in quick succession - including one by Peter Schaufuss with an impossibly complicated scenario, involving Tchaikowsky's entire extended family and a large collection of his friends. This year they have another new production, with choreography by Christopher Hampson and decor by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. It's a riot of colour and quirky costumes, and the role of Drosselmeyer has been tailor-made for guest star Irek Muhkamedov.

Much the best production seen recently in this country is Peter Wright's for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Made for Birmingham, as a thank you present for the city's support, it has a theatrical magic rarely seen these days and can get even the most cynical quite misty-eyed. I won't describe the beginning of Act ll as it would spoil the surprise if you've never seen it, but believe me it's wonderful! The BRB version is on show again this Christmas, but it is very popular and tickets can be hard to come by.

'Nutcracker' has not escaped the current craze for modernisation: Matthew Bourne and Mark Morris have both had a go at it, and Bourne's version (called Nutcracker!) can be seen at Sadler's Wells this Christmas. However in its original form it shows no sign of losing its hold as the No. 1 Christmas ballet, even though its universal popularity can lead to overdoses for those who have to review it, driving Richard Buckle to open his notice one year with the resigned remark "Well, we are all one Nutcracker nearer death".

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