Christmas at the London Coliseum means the return of English National Ballet’s Nutcracker, a festive favourite that is guaranteed to lift your spirits.
Nutcracker has been at the heart of English National Ballet’s repertoire since the Company was established in 1950. The current production, the Company’s tenth, dates from 2010. Made by then Artistic Director Wayne Eagling, with designs by Peter Farmer, this interpretation largely follows the traditional scenario but has a few unique flights of fancy mixed in too.
On Christmas Eve, young Clara and her brother Freddie enjoy a party with family and friends. Clara receives a Nutcracker doll as a present but, after a skirmish with jealous Freddie, the doll gets broken and has to be repaired by the mysterious Drosselmeyer. The party ends, the children are sent to bed and Clara has an action-packed dream in which her Nutcracker is attacked by an evil Mouse King. Departures from the traditional narrative in Eagling’s offering include the enchanting addition of a hot air balloon to whisk Clara and her Nutcracker away; horrifying giant mice invading scenes that are conventionally rodent-free; and a Puppet Theatre replacing the customary Kingdom of Sweets in Act Two.
English National Ballet’s talented dancers capture all the requisite wonder and magic of the Christmas staple. Having demonstrated in recent years that they are as adept in contemporary choreography from the likes of Akram Khan as they are in the classics, they assuredly keep this familiar ballet feeling fresh.
Popping into London at this time of year definitely makes the experience of watching Nutcracker especially memorable. While the capital’s most famous streets are aglow with dazzling seasonal illuminations, the splendour of the London Coliseum is enhanced by the now annual addition of a Christmas tree constructed entirely from pointe shoes. It is a real work of art and fans so look forward to marvelling at the tree that it now has its own social media hashtag (#ENBTree).
Taking pride of place in the middle of the foyer, this year’s yuletide showpiece is inspired by the Waltz of the Flowers from Nutcracker. The tree is made up of 530 used shoes donated by the dancers — each signed by their ballerina owners and hand-dyed in a pink gradient by Company dyer Symone Frost. It also features hand-crafted roses (fashioned from discarded ribbon used to tie the shoes), as well as twinkling fairy lights.
After marvelling at the tree, it is time to be seated in the auditorium. Excited chatter subsides as English National Ballet Philharmonic plays the opening chords of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score and we are instantly embraced by uplifting, swirling music. Moments later, the curtain lifts and scenes depicting a heart-warming, old-fashioned family Christmas fill the stage.
The ballet opens with a brief vignette that shows Clara, in her bedroom, preparing for the Christmas Eve party with her older sister Louise. As the girls primp and preen, their boisterous younger brother, Freddie, bursts in and begins teasing Clara with a mouse. Outside, snow falls while party guests wrapped up in warm coats and woolly scarves arrive on skates. Welcoming, whimsical and wintry. The perfect prologue to the antics coming up.
Eagling’s production has children play Clara and Freddie in the initial scenes, with other youngsters featured as party guests. This year’s children come from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and they are well-drilled, earnest and enthusiastic. Sophia Mucha makes for a sweetly expressive Clara, while Nicolas Pereira Da Silva revels in being overindulged mischief-maker Freddie.
The story of this Nutcracker is a captivating voyage of discovery. It is almost a coming of age as Clara’s overloaded and overexcited mind muddles her love for her Christmas present with an attraction towards the handsome Nephew (Joseph Caley) of master of ceremonies Dr. Drosselmeyer (an enigmatic Fabian Reimair). The transformation scene is modest but magical – everything grows, including Clara! She morphs into an adult ballerina (Jurgita Dronina) and eventually dances with her dream man in the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux.
Having the same dancer play Clara and Sugar Plum is a break from tradition but it does mean that we are treated to lots of sublime dancing from the lead ballerina. Dronina masters a believable transition from a wide-eyed young woman who finds herself in a topsy-turvy world to a glittering Sugar Plum Fairy.
Joseph Caley as the Nephew is a gallant partner, both to Clara as a child and the grown-up Clara. Skyler Martin, debuting as the masked Nutcracker, is lively and strong but there are moments where the continual switching of the Nephew and Nutcracker interrupts some of the joy and fluidity.
There are highlights aplenty throughout this imaginative production. Charming moments that will make you smile include when the toy Nutcracker wends his own way across the stage; and when the mice gas the soldiers by using a mousetrap to launch a wedge of cheese at them during the battle scene. All the dancing is delectable but special mention must be made of the whirling Snowflakes, the radiant Flowers, and the spectacular Spanish pas de trois (Crystal Costa sizzles).
Whether you are a dance devotee or an occasional theatregoer, English National Ballet’s Nutcracker provides cosy entertainment that will leave audience members of all ages feeling merry and bright!
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one interval (25 minutes).
English National Ballet’s Nutcracker continues at the London Coliseum until Sunday 30th December 2018.
Visit the English National Ballet website to discover Spring 2019 productions.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.