The Royal Ballet performs The Nutcracker
Part of the Royal Opera House Live Season 2013–14
Cineworld, Milton Keynes, Thursday 12 December 2013
Festive favourite The Nutcracker is a traditional part of the repertoire of The Royal Ballet, performed at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. This enchanting and enduring ballet epitomises the spirit and imagination of Christmas and is the ideal introduction to classical ballet (for children and adults alike).
Choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score, Peter Wright’s production for The Royal Ballet was first seen in Covent Garden in 1984 and, after some tweaking in 1999, remains a must-see version. Set on Christmas Eve, the ballet features a big family party, toys that magically come to life, glittering snowflakes and a kingdom of sweets.
Unsurprisingly, tickets for this season’s run of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House have long sold out. However, veteran balletomanes and curious newcomers alike were given the opportunity to enjoy the Christmas-themed ballet last night at cinemas around the world as part of the Royal Opera House Live Cinema series.
This live cinema screening meant fans in 29 countries were able to watch the dancers grace the stage in London, just as if they were sat in the sumptuous surroundings of the Royal Opera House. Former Royal Ballet Principal (turned BBC Strictly Come Dancing judge) Darcey Bussell gave cinema-goers a glimpse behind the scenes as she presented the build-up to the performance and provided some pre- and post-interval commentary.
We saw Peter Wright on-screen, rehearsing the production with the company and joined Darcey as she spoke to Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare. Viewers even “met” the instrument which creates the distinctive, sweet sound that that Sugar Plum Fairy dances to (the ‘Céleste’ – a keyboard instrument with glockenspiel-like metal plates – which creates a high, heavenly, bell-like sound).
Bringing ballet to the masses like this is a nifty way to inspire people who would not otherwise visit the cinema to pop to the pictures. It also encourages new audiences to engage with ballet in a less intimidating setting. And, of course, the venture goes some way to appease people like myself who would have loved to have booked tickets for the Royal Opera House but cost considerations and logistical issues meant tickets sold out before confirmed plans could be made.
Cineworld Milton Keynes devoted two screens to the event and one was sold out when I arrived at the ticket booth.
After a brief film extract introducing Herr Drosselmeyer (principal character artist Gary Avis) and footage showing the lucky students from the Royal Ballet Lower School (White Lodge) who join the company onstage, the live stream begins.
The curtain rises on Herr Drosselmeyer’s workshop. In The Royal Ballet’s version, the mysterious sorcerer influences events in an attempt to free his beloved nephew, Hans Peter, from the enchantment of the evil Mouse King. Hans Peter has been imprisoned within an ugly Nutcracker Doll. The only way to break the spell is for a young girl to love and care for him – despite his unpleasant appearance – and for him to slay the evil Mouse King.
Herr Drosselmeyer orchestrates everything to ensure his god-daughter, Clara, receives the Nutcracker Doll at a family party. She is also given a special Christmas Angel Doll to guide her.
The party scene is bathed in a warm glow, with opulent sets and a nostalgic feel. All of the children and ensemble dancers create the natural hubbub of a fun party and Gary Avis as Herr Drosselmeyer is exceptionally engaging.
Francesca Hayward as Clara is a pleasure to watch. Recently promoted from the corps, her dancing is delicate and airy and she captures the wide-eyed excitement and wonder of Clara effortlessly. Her acting is top-notch too. From the moment the Christmas Angel appears before her as a real live being (while the party guests remain totally unaware), it is evident that this Clara will easily share her extraordinary experience with the audience.
When the party is over, Clara tiptoes downstairs to visit her Nutcracker Doll and the magic begins. First the Christmas tree grows. This demonstrates some stunning staging (the Royal Ballet have been perfecting this amazing aesthetic alteration for almost 30 years). Then, the living room suddenly becomes a battlefield where the Mouse King and his army of mice fight the toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker.
The fight takes it out of the Nutcracker but Clara’s resourcefulness (she throws her shoe at the Mouse King) saves the Nutcracker’s life and allows him to eventually slay the Mouse King. Transformed into his real self, the Nutcracker dances with Clara and they find themselves in the Land of Snow.
Alexander Campbell as Hans Peter / The Nutcracker is a solid partner to Francesca Hayward and an endearing dancer with a very springy jump. He joins in the vigorous Russian dance with aplomb in Act Two.
Act Two sees Clara and Hans Peter travel to the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets where they meet The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.
Returning to reality, Clara runs out into the street in search of Drosselmeyer and encounters a strangely familiar young man asking directions. As the ballet draws to a close, Drosselmeyer and his nephew are reunited – the spell has been broken.
Using the character of Drosselmeyer and his mission to free Hans Peter to drive the story gives real purpose to Clara’s adventure in this ‘Nutcracker’. The narrative also gives Gary Avis plenty of opportunity to ensure the audience is truly behind his character.
The Snowflakes sparkle softly, and the Kingdom of Sweets is a glitzy, sugar-paste sweet realm full of divertissement delights. Yuhui Choe’s Rose Fairy is speedy, elegant and charming during The Waltz of the Flowers.
Lead Principal Laura Morera as The Sugar Plum Fairy is regal, poised and perfectly placed. As a principal she is refreshingly understated. She dances with intelligence and strength, avoiding showy, affected mannerisms and her musicality is spot on. And those signature Sugar Plum Fairy gargouillades (a pas de chat — a light, springing step moving sideways, jumping off of one foot and onto the other before recovering to stand on both feet — embellished with a circular motion made by each foot, almost as if each foot is writing a ring in the air). Let’s just say: gorgeous.
The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker is a sumptuous and elegant production that should be an essential part of Christmas.
This live screening was my very first experience of the Royal Opera House’s Live Cinema Season and – aside from the odd occasion when I did miss being able to see the whole stage – the camerawork was very good. It was lovely to be able to see the facial expressions of so many of the dancers up close and, overall, the piece was directed for the screen (by Ross MacGibbon) very well.
Being able to bring The Royal Ballet to so many venues across the world simultaneously is a real triumph for the Royal Opera House. Probably my biggest criticism of the whole experience is that, immersed in the dancing before me, I kept forgetting that I was sat in the cinema and not in the theatre. The urge to clap to show proper appreciation to the artists in front of us was at times overwhelming!
*Production photography of Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli by Tristram Kenton.
Visit The Royal Opera House website for information on future live screenings.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.