Life is sweeter when dance takes centre stage and the sugar rush from Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! certainly leaves audience members on a delicious high.
Bourne devised his dance-theatre interpretation of the fantasy ballet in 1992. It was his first full-length work and became the first big hit for his company, New Adventures. Now, almost a decade since it was last performed, Nutcracker! is back for its thirtieth anniversary. This makes the current production a revival and a celebration – sweet!
In the ballet, Clara falls asleep after her family’s Christmas Eve party and is transported on a dreamy journey to faraway lands. She helps good triumph over evil and is entertained by sweets from around the world. The story is about the magic of childhood, the power of dreams and awakening an appetite for grown-up experiences.
In Nutcracker! Bourne adds fizz and flavour for a refreshing twist. He retains the sense of innocence and wonder from the classical version but shakes up the scenario to depict the nightmarish reality and hedonistic dreams of an orphan named Clara. When a nutcracker doll comes to life and helps her escape from the orphanage, she follows him to Sweetieland and is caught in a love triangle. Will Clara find more than a momentary taste of happiness with her sweetheart?
Replacing the usual grand house with a grim orphanage is a reminder that without the bitter, the sweet is not as sweet. The orphans are boisterous youngsters, dressed in bland grey outfits, whose everyday existence warrants escaping from. They scamper in all directions completing chores in preparation for the governors’ Christmas visit, dance dutifully on demand and play with presents that are soon snatched away. Clara (the expressive and engaging Cordelia Braithwaite) stands out as the orphan with oomph. She cheekily greets us with a few curtsies before beckoning the others onstage. She makes us care about her as she fosters friendships and feels the flutter of first love for one of the boys.
The characters are swiftly established with a generous helping of humour. Animated facial expressions and exaggerated, purposeful movements ensure personalities pop. The orphanage, which has comedic and compelling Oliver Twist and Annie undertones, is ruled by domineering Dr Dross (the usual magician Drosselmeyer reinvented) and his sour wife. They deprive the orphans of festive fun while spoiling their own children, Fritz and Sugar, rotten.
Clara is charmed by a curious nutcracker doll among the presents and happily dances with him. Sugar is jealous. A tussle breaks out and the doll becomes a casualty. Fortunately, Clara’s friends, Edwin and Enid, provide first aid. The governors leave, satisfied that all is well. The hastily strung up Christmas decorations are pulled down and the toys are locked away.
When midnight strikes, the doll reappears as a human-sized Nutcracker who leads the orphans’ revolt. Huge shadows loom threateningly as Nutcracker (Harrison Dowzell) seizes control of his wayward limbs and stiffly strides about. Light floods the stage and Nutcracker is revealed to be a handsome hunk – a grown-up rendering of Clara’s crush! After the frenzy of the rebellion, their exploratory pas de deux is the perfect change of pace.
At the Frozen Pond, the liberated orphans wear stylish white skating outfits. Candy floss clouds float in a bright blue sky and the orphans enjoy their newfound freedom on the ice. This winter wonderland is reminiscent of skating ballet Les Patineurs and is magical. Moments of stillness, grounded transitions and airborne tricks create the gliding, sliding, skimming, speeding and soaring qualities of dancing on ice. A sprinkling of falling snow is the cherry on top.
Everyone, except Clara, has an alter ego. The traits they display in the orphanage translate to their later counterparts so selfish Sugar (Ashley Shaw) becomes Princess Sugar and greedy Fritz (Dominic North) becomes Prince Bon-Bon. Caring Edwin and Enid (Alistair Beattie and Shoko Ito) become pyjama-clad, bespectacled Cupids. They are Clara’s heavenly helpers as she searches for Nutcracker, whose affections are being trifled with by Princess Sugar.
Clara is refused entry into Sweetieland by the Humbug doorman as she doesn’t have an invitation. Seems bonkers, but it is brilliant! The sweeties are all pure sugar, which avoids outdated stereotypes associated with problematic national dances. Liquorice Allsorts perform flirty flamenco. Knickerbocker shows he is a seductive, supple sundae. Pink Marshmallow girls preen and pose. Hyperactive Gobstopper boys bounce.
As a realm of gluttony and guilty pleasure, Sweetieland is a riotously colourful and randy place. If Princess Sugar was chocolate, she would eat herself. Prince Bon-Bon leads a licking dance, complete with grabbing hands that make the characters look as if they are stuffing sweets into their mouths.
Anthony Ward’s costumes and sets are all amazing – from oppressed orphans in a dingy dormitory to frivolous fancies atop a giant pink cake. Bourne’s choreography takes a pick-and-mix approach as it features contemporary, ballet, tap, folk and social dance. Busby Berkeley influences are apparent in the geometric patterns the dancers form on the ice and on the tiers of the cake. Tchaikovsky’s score accompanies the entire visual feast and, although the music is recorded, it is as transporting as ever.
Nutcracker! will satisfy your craving to escape the humdrum and leave you daydreaming about tiptoeing past the humbug to explore Sweetieland again. Book for a belated Valentine’s date with your other half, an occasion with your besties or a fun theatre visit with your whole family. Just find any excuse to indulge!
*Production photography by Johan Persson.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.