En Pointe: ‘The Nutcracker,’ A Review.
Returning to Liverpool, an ambitious Russian State Ballet of Siberia showcased three different productions over three consecutive nights. They cracked it with their final production, The Nutcracker, the perfect mix of fun and the fantastical.
’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the stalls,
Not a whisper was heard as the ballet enthralled.
(The mice, though, were all astir- at the express instruction of the choreographer.)
Well, actually, it was an unremarkable Saturday in February, and 312 (and counting!) days until Christmas. Still, in the world of The Nutcracker, at least, it was December 24, with preparations for the Stahlbaum’s annual festive shindig in full swing. As Clara and little bro Fritz settled cross-legged round the tree, then, the game audience of the Empire settled back in their seats, disbelief suspended and J2O Orange and Mango/mulled wine in hand.
The Nutcracker is a truly international tale, coming by way of Prussian writer E.T.A. Hoffman, before being adapted by Frenchman Alexandre Dumas; yes, he of The Three Musketeers fame, so some swashbuckling is a given. From there, a Russian bureaucrat suggested transferring it to the balletic stage, where it premiered- with a score by the legendary Tchaikovsky– in 1892. Clara is the ballet’s central figure, a young girl, who, gifted a nutcracker doll by her eccentric uncle Drosselmeyer, finds herself transported on the stroke of midnight to a mythical realm of sparring mice, dancing sugar plums, and a suddenly sentient nutcracker. Captured by this quotation from the original novel, it’s Kingdom of Sweets on steroids: ‘Everything Clara could see was made of sugar.’ When she wakes the next morning she dismisses it all as a dream… yet her nutcracker doll is at her side, looking decidedly shifty. It is left unresolved whether this is a case of a little too much of the festive cheeseboard before bed- or something altogether more magical.
In the R. S. B. version, the curtain rose on the guests gathering for the party. Then in waltzed (or, technically, chauseed) ol’ Drosselmeyer, bearing gifts for his niece and nephew. These toys too came to life, fully articulated dancers cleverly maintaining a toy- like rigidity of limb. The average ballet requires 5, 000 hours of practice; the attention to detail in this production suggested it warranted more. A ballet is like its ubiquitous pointe shoe, all rose- pink silk and ribbons above, an undersole soiled with hard graft below.
En pointe: The lavishly-costumed dancers, of, respectively, the ‘Tea,’ ‘Coffee’ and ‘Chocolate’ dances.
Perhaps because of its origins, The Nutcracker is marked for its many sections of discrete dances by foreign contingents. Sure, there’s that old chestnut, ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,’ but there’s also Cossacks performing ‘The Dance of the Borscht,’ a flamenco-style ‘Dance of the Chorizo Sausage’ (the outfits are all rather form-fitting), even an Oriental-inspired ‘Dance of the Extra Special All-You-Can-Eat Wednesday Buffet Deal.’ (Admittedly, I may have embellished these titles a tad.) Whether it was a pas de deux, trois, or quatre, the Russian ballet troupe’s dancers captured perfectly in each scene of the so-called ‘Grand Divertessement’ a tantalisingly exotic je ne sais quoi. Hareem-panted sultanas did sultry and enigmatic; kimono-clad Chinese quirkily endearing with their deft temps leves. Especially in the second act, audience enthusiasm was heightened by the instantly recognisable music, pieces played into the public psyche after being adopted into, amongst other things, episodes of The Simpsons, Cadbury ‘Fruit and Nut’ adverts, and even Tetris background riffs.
Props (and costumes) should definitely go to Christina Fyodorova, wardrobe and staging supervisor supreme. Her designs managed to index nationality without resorting to cultural stereotypes. Her use of a digitised background screen, projecting pagodas, icy lakes and tinsel-festooned trees, subtly set the scene without over-egging the faux-festive feel. For the Mouse Army, the aesthetic she chose leant more towards the cartoonish than the sinister. Previous productions have featured a mouse army befanged and mottled with purplish greasepaint (see Russia Beyond); Fyodorova opted for larger-than-life plush head attachments, and a Mouse King donning a medallion that would make even the Flash ad man proud. Less of a threat, more want to pet.
Merlin’s beard(less): Suddenly turned sorcerer, Drosselmeyer bewitches the children at the party.
Aside from cuddly mice, other light-hearted touches included Clara’s dithering, monocled grandparents- they raised a laugh with their comically exaggerated stoop and disapproving stares. No deadpan ballerinas to be found here, in a troupe just as accomplished at acting as dancing. Audience appreciation also followed the superb solos of principal Ekaterina Bulgurova (Clara)- in the form of applause. More mature than the traditional Clara, her experience was evident in a flawless sequence of fouettes.
The show’s main letdown was its length- two acts in, one hour forty-five down, and Clara’s fantasy was over as Christmas day dawned. Perhaps if they hadn’t pirouetted quite so fast…