The Nutcracker, Royal Opera House and Coliseum, London

If the Mayans were right, and the lights go out in four days’ time, then some of us will disappear with the happy memory of the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker at its return to the repertory in Peter Wright’s non-pareil staging. The opening Covent Garden performance was sponsored by the Paul Hamlyn Trust in association with The Sun newspaper, whose readership was offered the opportunity of tickets for a theatre and a performance that might not otherwise have come to their notice. There resulted an atmosphere of happiest anticipation and liveliest pleasure. (It brought to mind a schools’ matinee with Birmingham Royal Ballet when the young schoolgirl seated next to me observed conversationally: “This had better be good!”) The production proved, as ever, rewardingly good.

Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs are an ideal setting, apt in period as in happiest illusions: the tree grows, Clara’s world miraculously changes. Koen Kessels found all the score’s magic and subtleties – more complex, more rewarding, than some conductors allow. Gary Avis as Drosselmeyer established a mood of benevolent mystery, so vital to the drama, and Peter Wright has evoked a world in which we believe. (No family party could have nicer hosts than Christopher Saunders and Elizabeth McGorian, nor seem more gemütlich.)

Performances were sincere, and yet again I salute the elegant clarity and brilliancy of Stephen McRae, the prince of the great pas de deux. (Roberta Marquez as the Sugar Plum was all charm, but with smiles rather than the gargouillades, that diabolical step which identifies the brightest facets of the role.) Ricardo Cervera, unfailingly true in performance, was an ideal Nutcracker hero. The evening went joyously well, and the innovation of raising the curtain in the interval to explain the whys of the scene-change was admirably done, with David Pickering from the ballet troupe an engaging guide to what was happening. Hurrah for the Hamlyn Trust and five stars for the performance.

There is a slight stellar reduction for English National Ballet’s staging, now installed at the London Coliseum. Its first performance proved an illuminating event. Wayne Eagling’s version of this ancient relic of bear-bating is traditional enough. Peter Farmer’s design is agreeable; the orchestra under Benjamin Pope did well by Tchaikovsky; the dancers worked with a will; the audience was clearly delighted. And your critic sat there, slightly concerned that he was trapped in a seasonal tape-loop of mice, snowflakes and over-vivacious tots.

I tried not to remember past glories – Alicia Markova, who helped found the company, crystalline in the great pas de deux, and the illustrious performance tradition (back, indeed, to the first performances in St Petersburg in 1892) that she incarnated. And then Daria Klimentová appeared as the first act came to its climax, with Vadim Muntagirov her cavalier. Muntagirov has grown up as an artist. What had been youthfully exciting in his dancing, has matured into a quietly grand authority, and gives an exceptional grace and power to his presence.

But it was Klimentová who transformed the evening. Here was that rare thing in our ballet today, an assured ballerina, in command of her métier. Not a girl, not a kitten pretending to be a tiger, but an elegant woman bringing the proper inevitability to step and phrase – “this is how it is done” – and demanding our belief in her artistry, in her identity. She was grand in the great pas de deux, albeit the choreographic text is debilitated and could be replaced with something nearer the original Lev Ivanov steps – steps which offered such lustre and such authority to Markova’s virtuosity, and which are not wholly lost to current performance. Klimentová gave the character charm, an unassailable elegance, and Muntagirov, handsome in step as in presence, was her worthy cavalier.

The staging is agreeable – though I mistrust the second-act divertissements, not least the erotic shenanigans of the Arabian dance – but Klimentová and Muntagirov provided a rare and touching dignity. We were watching true classical dancing, as we had with Steven McRae at Covent Garden. A wonderful present for Christmas.

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