What heralds Christmas and excites our senses more than the turning on of the town’s Christmas lights or promotions of the fun-filled pantomime season? If you’re lucky enough to catch it, it has to be Tchaikovsky’s most popular and evocative ballet, The Nutcracker. It is, without doubt, the essence of Christmas, and an experience you must have, at least once in your lifetime. It has been a staple of the Christmas tradition in the US since the 1960s, and, unlike Black Friday, is a cultural import that we can appreciate. This season, Woking is privileged to host a five-day run of the performance, performed by one of the most exciting and brilliant touring ballet companies in the country currently, the Northern Ballet. Ballet fans may remember their original production of The Great Gatsby that came to Woking a few years ago, one of the most stunning contemporary ballet performances I have seen.
I was therefore intrigued to discover how they would interpret this extremely traditional ballet and meet the audience’s expectations, who were, on the first night, of a largely traditional age. The company’s artistic director David Nixon has said that he “wanted to create a Nutcracker that was simultaneously traditional and yet bespoke to the Northern Ballet”. In the opening scene, we see this vision. Nixon chose to set the piece and, of course, the divine costumes in the Regency period. The elegant Regency-style dances and floating costumes were definitely of the Northern Ballet’s characteristic style – informal, fluid and vibrant.
The plot is quite phantasmagorical, making Alice in Wonderland seem pedestrian; however, that is of little consequence. The delight, excitement and awe comes from Tchaikovsky’s music, the incredible dance choreography and, yes, I’m going to mention it again, the costumes. The set is subtly rich and elegant and doesn’t dominate – centre stage is always taken up by the dancers. Although feeling a bit crowded at times, the stage was a smorgasbord of activity with multiple groups of dancers weaving and interacting.
The first act starts with Clara and her family preparing for Christmas, when Uncle Drosselmeyer arrives with a box of exotic toys. The heroine falls in love with a gift toy, The Nutcracker, that later that evening magically comes to life and turns into a handsome prince, dragging the bemused Clara into a battle with a Mouse King and his army of mice. Again, we see Nixon’s characteristic style here. Rather than going with the conventional, slightly scary mice, he turns them into rather amusing characters, that frequently twerk their behinds to the audience. The end of the first act sees Clara and the Prince, after triumphantly defeating the Mouse King, running off through an enchanted forest, and encountering the exquisite snowflakes, dressed in stunning, glittering tutus.
The second act finds Clara and the Prince in the land of sweets ruled by the Sugarplum Fairy, and the style reverts to the conventions of the traditional ballet. After meeting the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier, superbly danced by Minju Kang and Javier Torres, the two watch a series of divertissements and the audience gets to appreciate the most well-known musical pieces of the ballet, including the fabulous pas de deux finale of the dance of the sugar plum fairy. This act differed quite clearly from the first act, reverting more to the traditional form and style of the original. We were more aware of the technical competency, strong poses and holds, and grand jetes, although some of the music seemed underused at times and synchronised moves perhaps more constrained than they could have been. Still, the show was completely enchanting, and the audience left the theatre merrily, ready now to do their Christmas shopping and get the mulled wine on the go. Bring on Christmas!
[Amanda Briggs November 2018]
The Northern Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs from November 27 – December 1, at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking