With its year in, year out clockwork precision, The Nutcracker is a balletic dish to be sampled sparingly. Too many Spanish chocolates, Sugar Plums and Candy Canes and up go your cholesterol levels. Too few and you might be the only one missing out on the best of the season’s treats. For that reason you’d better choose productions wisely. Preferably – and your arteries will thank you for this – you’d try something that delivers the goods while leaving aside the “OTT” sickly sweeties, such as Sir Peter Wright’s staging for The Birmingham Royal Ballet.
If we’ve all seen The Nut so many times why do we keep returning in the first place? Throughout the years the ballet has left its personal imprint on us, just like an old friend. We might think of the days when we would put on our prettiest dresses, like so many little girls still do, and look up to brave Clara. Her courage to turn her nightmare into dreams, defeating the mouse king (or, in this version, King Rat) to save her Nutcracker prince with bonus reward of a journey to a magical sugary land has given us much to consider about girl power.
With a firm focus on our Clara and her coming-of-age tale, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production had the children around us enthralled, gasping, applauding and rooting for our heroine and her Nutcracker prince. In this staging Clara is a ballet student and her mother an elegant former ballerina whose exquisite red dress is a dead giveaway for designer John Macfarlane’s source of inspiration: très chic Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Before her godfather Drosselmeyer shows up with the Nutcracker, Clara’s first Christmas gift is a ballerina doll which will later become the Sugar Plum Fairy and dance the Grand pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince. In this way the Sugar Plum is a sort of dreamlike projection of what the grown-up Clara might one day become.
On Saturday matinée the role of Clara was danced by soloist Momoko Hirata, with young whiz kid Joseph Caley as her Nutcracker Prince. Both Momoko and Joseph have the advantage of looking very young which, on top of their dramatic skills, help make their characterisations all the more convincing. Momoko’s soft arms and graceful steps shape a young girl with her ballerina dreams who blushes when close to her young suitor. From his first dance with Clara Joseph displays his clean technique and princely lines foreshadowing his later appearance as Cavalier to the Sugar Plum Fairy – the very charming Ambra Vallo. He is a most attentive partner with a smile that could melt many a young maiden’s heart. Mothers beware.
Elsewhere in the ballet both of Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous waltzes, for Snowflakes and Flowers, showcase the company’s great energy and style, making this Nutcracker come alive in a way that the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese divertissements cannot quite match up to. Besides the lovely duo of Caley and Vallo, these are my own favorite moments, but I suspect that for kids the deal clincher might be entirely different: between the giant Christmas tree, the mice that scurry from a glowing fireplace to thunderous applause and Clara’s flight on the back of a snow goose, the youngsters are spoiled with three Christmas miracles wrapped in one beautiful Victorian package.