We need to talk about Nutcrackers
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During this Christmas season, from the early days of December until mid-January, London is clogged, blighted, with stagings of The Nutcracker. It is a state of affairs which would seem ludicrous were it not so artistically stultifying, and so horridly typical of artistic policies and artistic funding.
Consider the following numbers. At Covent Garden, the Royal Ballet is playing The Nutcracker 27 times – from early December until mid-January. A stone’s throw away at the London Coliseum, English National Ballet presents The Nutcracker from early December for 37 performances. (Each theatre seats rather more than 2,000 people). At the O2 Arena, Birmingham Royal Ballet plays The Nutcracker for four performances, each with a seating capacity in excess of 10,000. At Sadler’s Wells, Matthew Bourne’s revisionist Nutcracker plays from December 6 until January 22, seven weeks providing a further 56 outings in a theatre seating 1,500 people.
The total and desirable audience (companies depend upon capacity houses with these annual Nutcrackers to help balance the books) is 250,000 bodies, hooked on Tchaikovsky, snowflakes, a sugar-plum fairy, a mouse-battle, and a Panglossian belief that all’s for the best in this best of all balletic worlds. Humbug, says your Scrooge critic.
Away from London the problem also exists. Northern Ballet played its Nutcracker on tour in November. Birmingham’s Royals showed The Nutcracker in its home theatre in early December. Two touring Russian ensembles are occupying theatres from Blackpool to Poole with traditional offerings, and inevitably The Nutcracker is somewhere on display.
Nor is this just a national problem. In the US it is known that some 200 Nutcracker stagings (most of them amateur for ballet schools) are on view, while this month there are two large productions in New York, and professional troupes in Boston, Houston, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco are playing the same game.
I offer this depressing catalogue since it casts some light on both audience expectations and performance dilemmas. It is a regrettable aspect of Dame Ninette de Valois’s policies in building ballet in this country, that she showed her audiences that the old masterpieces of the Imperial Russian repertory (which she acquired in honourable versions) were essential foundations for a company and irresistible for its public. In effect, she went back from the determined innovations of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, in which she had danced, to the classical bed-rock of the Mariinsky repertory at the turn of the 20th century. (Of course, she also understood that new work by national choreographers –
Ashton and herself – was no less vital.)
A fashion was created, and was variously emulated wherever audiences saw de Valois’s company in the postwar years. Those grand ballets, made for the Russian Imperial Ballet in a great theatre in the 19th century, were then copied, offered in shrunken and dishevelled versions, inadequately danced. Audiences learned that ballet was all too often an art of nostalgia. Diaghilev, with his ceaseless quest for the vividly contemporary, had laboured in vain. “Three acts, good! One act, bad!” was the tribal cry – and the popularity of the Ashton/MacMillan blockbusters round the world (Manon staged by some 20 different ensembles) is proof enough today.
So, what can be done – what must be done – to cure this endemic, epidemic Nutcracking? The obvious response is a change of repertory. The Royal Ballet has, in the seriously neglected treasury of its repertory, ballets which would attract an audience – probably youthful at this season, certainly eager for a sun-lit stage action. La Fille mal gardée, Cinderella and Coppélia are obvious choices, but there are such short ballets as Les Patineurs and that old Diaghilevan charmer La Boutique fantasque that are of immediate and timeless appeal. And, perish the thought, Ashton’s Façade, MacMillan’s Solitaire and Elite Syncopations, are instant charmers for a public in quest of a Christmas treat.
For English National Ballet and the other Nut-fetishists, the opportunity and means to beguile a seasonal audience is similar. And, for all these troupes, the chance to commission new and specific choreography (“We want something jolly for the Christmas season”) is not to be thrown away. Certainly, this month’s log-jam of Nutcrackers must never be repeated: ballet is suddenly identified as the most time-worn of clichés, the most predictable of artistic endeavours, and ballet companies as purveyors of the stale, the safe, the moribund. Inertia rules!
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