We might still be in November but Christmas is well and truly on its way now English National Ballet is delighting audiences with its dreamy Nutcracker at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Nothing gets me in the festive spirit quite like hearing the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s glorious score. There are many different versions of this seasonal ballet but the magical music is timeless and immediately evokes feelings of anticipation, enjoyment, excitement, adventure and beauty. Superbly played by English National Ballet Philharmonic, the familiar compositions envelop audience members in a blissful ballet bubble from the overture through to the finale.
The company’s current Nutcracker, choreographed by Wayne Eagling, is wonderfully wintry and whimsical. On a frosty Christmas Eve in Edwardian London a family hosts a celebratory get-together. Among the guests is Drosselmeyer, a magician and maker of toys, and his handsome nephew. Young Clara is besotted with the nephew and eagerly dances with him before receiving a painted wooden nutcracker soldier from the mysterious Drosselmeyer. Thrilled with the gift, Clara happily dances with her new doll until a scuffle with her brother Freddie results in the nutcracker being damaged. Fortunately, Drosselmeyer works his magic to fix the wounded toy before the children are sent off to bed. What happens next is a fanciful adventure. Clara encounters an evil Mouse King, battles with the Nutcracker against an army of mice and travels to the Land of Snow. Later, she is entertained by dancers from all over the world, presented with a pretty posy of waltzing flowers and comes of age dancing with her very own prince.
Fortunate enough to have seen this particular Nutcracker a few times before at the London Coliseum, I am impressed with how well the ballet is recreated on tour. All the enchanting elements that audiences adore – flurries of snowfall, ice-skating guests, a growing Christmas tree – feature in this touring production.
The party guests’ arrival on skates and in sleighs is charming. Various amusing vignettes are playfully executed by the artists on the stage and joyfully absorbed by the audience, before the fascinating conjurer Drosselmeyer (a charismatic Fabian Reimair) and his nephew (a gallant Cesar Corrales) make their entrance. After a few tricks from Drosselmeyer – including a frozen tableau of the elegant party guests – to demonstrate his sorcery, the stage is soon swarming with dancing merrymakers. English National Ballet’s dancers mingle with ease while enacting the hubbub of chattering and laughter and come together for an entertaining and endearing Grandfather Dance to signal the culmination of the festivities.
Students from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts radiate genuine excitement to be performing with the company as the children, their jubilation on opening night giving the group numbers a lovely natural spontaneity. Euan Garret is a boisterous Freddie and proves to be the perfect ringleader for the band of mischief-making boys. The little girl who plays Clara has a twinkle-toed solo to dazzle us with, requiring fast feet and fluid arms as well as a connection with the nutcracker doll. Sophia Mucha is a joy to watch in the role.
Clara as a child is replaced with an adult ballerina during the transformation scene. Lead principal Alina Cojocaru captures all the innocence of youth. She has just enough vulnerability when face-to-face with a huge angry mouse to convince us of her fear; is valiant in battle alongside the nutcracker; and has a wholesome romance with her very own nutcracker prince. Cojocaru is feather-light, skimming the floor en pointe and soaring through the air in unhurried leaps. She partners both Nutcracker (James Forbat) and Nephew (Cesar Corrales) with exquisite technique and artistry, negotiating the intricate lifts and turns with gracious professionalism. Corrales is a very refined Nephew. Pleasingly, the precision and power in his jumps and turns add a spark of exhilaration to prevent the genteel character being bland.
All the upcoming principal cast lists promise more memorable performances from the assorted dancers who will perform as the key players. Perhaps more importantly, though, the whole company impresses in this classical favourite. There are so many gorgeous moments to indulge in, this ballet is like a comforting hot chocolate on an icy cold day.
Following the splendour of the party and the amusing antics of the mice battling the soldiers, we are swept up in a whirlwind of a snowstorm. Here, the female corps de ballet are entrancing as glistening, gliding snowflakes. The colourful divertissement dances in the second act are all gems. A sizzling Spanish showcase; exotic Arabian entertainers; a trio of supple and springy Chinese dancers; a gentle, delicate Mirlitons number; a lively Russian troupe. And, of course, the rose-hued Waltz of the Flowers blossoms beautifully (the radiant Lead Flowers on opening night were Isabelle Brouwers partnered with Guilherme Menezes and Alison McWhinney partnered with Vitor Menezes). With so much to enjoy before the sparkling final pas de deux, we audience members really do feel as if all our Christmases have come at once!
The magnificent thing about the Nutcracker ballet is its appeal for children. After all, children play the most important characters and the ballet is set at Christmas. Seeing a five-year-old little girl sat nearby be utterly transfixed throughout the performance added further pleasure to my evening. Accompanied by her mother, this tiny theatregoer was clearly enamoured with Cojocaru (particularly when she reappeared in a stunning white and gold tutu for her glittering pas de deux with Corrales in the second act) and savouring the whole experience.
English National Ballet’s Nutcracker continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 26 November 2016 before touring to Liverpool and London.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.