The Royal Ballet's 'Nutcracker'
The Royal Ballet's 'Nutcracker' © Tristram Kenton

A Christmas party chez Stahlbaum: Friday 7.30 sharp. Dress: Biedermeier smart-casual. Drinks and dancing — lots and lots of dancing.

Covent Garden’s now annual run of Nutcrackers began last week, playing to packed and rapturous houses. The Royal (né Vic-Wells) Ballet has been dancing Casse-Noisette since Ninette de Valois got the former Mariinsky régisseur Nicholas Sergeyev to stage it for her infant company in 1934 — the first time the full ballet had been performed outside Russia. De Valois’s Sugar Plum Fairy was Alicia Markova, the Danse Arabe was led by Elsa Lanchester (Frankenstein’s bride-to-be) and a 14-year-old Peggy Hookham (billed as “Margot Fontes”) made her debut as one of the Snowflakes.

Peter Wright’s production was designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman. The receding cornices of the Stahlbaum’s drawing room slot perfectly into the gilt and red velvet of the Opera House interior, compounding the magical sense that the audience is seated inside a Pollock’s toy theatre.

ETA Hoffmann’s tale of a young man transformed into a novelty household gadget is loosely but coherently retold. Wright has reworked his 1984 production many times over the years but the biggest changes were made in 1999, when he upgraded the role of Clara, the story’s heroine, giving her a greater part to play in the Act Two divertissements and beefing up her budding romance with the Nutcracker/nephew.

This new conception of Clara, which borrows heavily from Wright’s 1990 Birmingham Royal Ballet Nutcracker, was first performed by Alina Cojocaru who had (and still has) the perfect blend of childlike looks and grown-up technique, qualities shared by versatile soloist Emma Maguire, who danced the role last Friday evening with just the right blend of artless virtuosity.

Wright’s choreography for Clara borrows freely from the Sugar Plum Fairy’s signature steps (the only chunk of Lev Ivanov’s original 1892 text to have been passed down more or less intact) and Maguire’s quick, clever feet shimmer impressively through the gargouillades and the long chains of machine-stitched steps. The FT’s Clement Crisp once likened Maguire’s pas de bourrée to “beautifully graduated pearls” — praise indeed.

Magical: Julia Trevelyan Oman designed the production
Magical: Julia Trevelyan Oman designed the production © Tristram Kenton

Friday’s Sugar Plum was danced with musicality and assurance by Yasmine Naghdi, who had conductor Barry Wordsworth, the orchestra and much of the audience eating out of her hand. She was smoothly partnered by an otherwise underpowered Ryoichi Hirano.

Wright’s staging — like every Nutcracker since 1892 — provides generous amounts of stage time for ballet students who supply party guests, angels, mice, soldiers and the adorable quartet of sharp-footed pages who lead Clara and her Nutcracker to the Kingdom of Sweets.

Friday’s richly fruited performance offered splendid dancing at every level. Calvin Richardson caught the eye as always as a snake-hipped Spaniard. Leo Dixon brought boyish bounce and polished footwork to Clara’s Act One dancing partner. Romany Pajdak was a zesty Vivandière, Itziar Mendizabal was full of eastern promise in her spellbinding Arabian dance and Marcelino Sambé and the consistently dazzling Joseph Sissens were luxury casting for the firecracker Chinese duet.

The long run of Bayadères and recent workouts in Balanchine’s Symphony in C have left the corps de ballet fighting fit and they made light work of Wright’s Snowflake ensembles, at once soft and crystalline: Tchaikovsky made visible.


To January 15,

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