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About the Change

‘Nutcracker Time’

Ian Palmer with some seasonal thoughts about the biggest Christmas ballet of them all and which ones to see in the UK...

© Bill Cooper

Jeffery Taylor's Nutcracker thoughts with quotes and more history

'Nutcracker' reviews across the world

RB 'Nutcracker' reviews

BRB 'Nutcracker' reviews

ENB 'Nutcracker' reviews

NBT 'Nutcracker' reviews

Bourne 'Nutcracker' reviews

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre 'Nutcracker' reviews

Chisinau 'Nutcracker' reviews

Ian Palmer reviews

It is a peculiar fact that the world’s most popular ballet, performed by more companies across the globe than any other, should have begun in difficult circumstances, yet The Nutcracker, that whirligig of Christmas-tide extravaganza, loved by children of all ages, arose out of artistic torment. In 1890 Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, visionary Director of the Imperial Theatres, sought to emulate the huge success of The Sleeping Beauty from the previous year and commissioned from its collaborators – the Octogenarian master choreographer Marius Petipa and the composer Tchaikovsky – a two-act ballet based on a tale by Hoffmann. Yet in the two years it took for the ballet to reach the stage, its composer would lose his sister and fall into deepest depression and Petipa would suffer crippling bouts of illness that would eventually see his work taken over by his assistant Lev Ivanov. Then, following its premiere in December 1892, the critical reception was hostile: ‘nonsense unworthy of attention’, wrote one critic; ‘ballet is sliding downhill, having lost its footing, and is moving away towards some kind of fragile, sugary Nutcracker’, wrote another.

That the ballet, with its simple tale of a Christmas Eve party and a young girl’s journey to Confiturenburg (the Land of the Sweets) should, over the subsequent years, rise above its sugary sickliness is testament in no small part to the genius of Tchaikovsky’s score. Required by Petipa to produce ‘colossal effects’, he channelled into his composition all the emotional angst and heart-felt lustre that he was also writing into his sixth (and final) symphony, The Pathetique, though its beauty, as the conductor Constant Lambert remarked, lies also in its simplicity: some of the most potent moments – the transformation of the Christmas tree and the duet between Clara and the Nutcracker Prince in Act 1; the Adagio of the Grand Pas de Deux in Act 2 – consist solely of ascending and descending scales. Tchaikovsky also chose to bring out the ‘Hoffmann-esque’ elements of the tale, underscoring the instrumentation with ethereal, sometimes sinister, colour, the most famous of whose examples is the use of the celesta, an instrument he discovered in Paris at the studios of Auguste Mustel and used in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation to invoke ‘drops of water, as if shooting out of fountains’.

Yet this is not to detract from the invention of Lev Ivanov who finalised the ballet from the sketches and plans of Petipa and whose work still survives (though in incomplete format) as part of the Sergeyev Collection now held at Harvard University. It was these manuscripts, initially brought to England by Petipa’s regisseur, Nikolai Sergeyev, following the October Revolution of 1917, which formed the basis of the first staging of the ballet outside St. Petersburg. In January 1934, Alicia Markova led the recently formed Vic-Wells in a performance of The Nutcracker in London and thereafter followed a nation’s fascination with the work.

It is that company’s descendant, the Royal Ballet, which now dances the closest approximation of Ivanov, in a 1984 production by Sir Peter Wright supervised by Professor Roland John Wiley, whose academic research has been devoted to the interpretation of the Sergeyev papers. In its beautiful ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’, which closes the first act, Wright used the exact floor patterns devised by Ivanov, and present day audiences perhaps see in its eddying, freezing formations of snowflakes drifting across the stage, a little of what Imperial audiences saw at the ballet’s premiere. The production has, however, been tinkered with over the years and not always for the best. It is also hampered by Julia Trevelyan Oman’s fussy designs within which Drosselmeyer is now played (in the words of Clement Crisp) as ‘your uncle who has decided to come out as a drag queen’ and Clara is allowed to meddle in the Act 2 Divertissements.


BRB artists in The Nutcracker
© Bill Cooper

The better of Peter Wright’s two productions is that danced by Birmingham Royal Ballet, in a 1990 staging. Here Wright has streamlined his ideas, presenting the narrative in simple, clear-told manner and though Clara still plays karaoke in the Divertissements, the effect is lessened by the stunning designs of John F. Macfarlane, the most magical transformations of the Christmas Tree and the flying goose that brings Clara into the kingdom of Confiturenburg. It is widely regarded, and rightly so, as the best Nutcracker in the land.

Coming up a close second, to my mind, is that created this year by David Nixon for Northern Ballet Theatre. It is a radical departure for Nixon’s company, whose usual style is contemporary ballet theatre, rather than classical dance; but when I saw the premiere, in October, they were beginning to show a real understanding of the Classical style. Nixon, together with his designer Charles Cusick Smith, has transported the first act from Biedermeyer Germany to Regency England and Drosselmeyer becomes a kind of Gentleman adventurer. This makes perfect sense in relation to Act 2 in which Confiturenburg is a Chinese Pavilion that reflects not only the ‘exotique’ of Drosselmeyer’s travels but also the taste for exploration that was gripping England at that time.


Sebastian Loe as the Chinese doll with Northern Ballet Theatre Dancers in The Nutcracker
© Brian Slater

The presentation of the figure of Drosselmeyer has often been problematic. In the production currently toured around the country by the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre – Vassily Vainonen’s socially realistic, though choreographically dull 1934 staging – he resembles Ozzy Osbourne. In the staging which ENB will present at London’s Coliseum – that by the talented choreographer Christopher Hampson – he appears as Gary Glitter. Admittedly the role has been toned down since Irek Mukhamedov first danced it and made it as camp (if you will forgive the pun) as Christmas, but in Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon-ish designs this Nutcracker is still over-the top, though it invariably delights the children and sells well year after year. Another version worth a look (though perhaps as a curio, rather than for the quality of the dancing) is that toured by Chisinau National Ballet, which is Yuri Grigorovich’s 1966 Bolshoi staging. As in the Vainonen production, Clara (though here called Masha) grows up to become the Sugar Plum Fairy and the ballet, in its growth towards the sumptuous vision of the apotheosis in Simon Virsaladze’s designs, is an allegory on the subject of noble youth.

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker!
© John Ross

But if all this is still too sugary for your tastes, there is of course Matthew Bourne to refresh an old tale. In his 1992 production the action takes place in a Victorian work-house within which the orphans try to amuse themselves. As always with Bourne, humour and pathos inter-mingle in contemporary fashion and in this manner he captures much of the inflections in Tchaikovsky’s lavish score. But whichever staging you choose to see, the celestawill always sparkle and as the tree begins to rise, Christmas seems always to arrive.

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