Casse Noisette (the Nutcracker) is an annual tradition for shrieking hoardes of ballet-lovers all over the globe. If you want to keep it real, I heartily recommend a Sunday matinée. Here are three reasons why: going to a matinée is a great way to see up-and-coming or under-utilised dancers in solo roles, you can hear some great zingers from the sea of children surrounding you (“LOOK MOM THERE’S PRINCESS JASMINE!” in the Arabian-inspired section is one shining example), Casse Noisette is drenched in holiday anticipation, and the kids in the audience are almost effervescent with it. The excitement feels contagious. After all, Casse Noisette is literally set on Christmas Eve, and peppered with toys, candy, and visual confectionary of every kind.

© Veronyc Vachon
© Veronyc Vachon

The story is not a complex one, which – quite aside from the sugar-coated themes - makes it an ideal choice for a child’s first ballet.

Anyone who has ever seen Casse Noisette will tell you that the first half is slow as molasses, dance-wise, however the “rhubarb-rhubarb” stage talk and campy party jigs are vital to establish who’s who and offer a narrative foundation to the second half.

In case you’ve never seen it (really? seriously?) here's a brief synopsis: on Christmas Eve, the Stalbaum family hosts a party for their friends and family. Their daughter, Clara, is given a nutcracker doll from her godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer. Her brother Fritz wants to play with it too and the toy is broken in the ensuing fight. Clara is heartbroken and goes back to the living room after the guests have gone home to check on her toy. She falls asleep on the chaise longue with her nutcracker tucked under one arm, when suddenly she’s woken up by a small army of mice and rats, whom she helps defeat. Dr Drosselmeyer rewards her by transforming the nutcracker into a real prince, who in turn takes her to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets.

For parents, Casse Noisette involves answering many many whispered questions. So many questions. From my five year old co-critic, I fielded the following within the first thirty minutes: “Is it real snow?” / “Why can he do magic?” / “Where’s the Mouse King?” / “Is it the end of the show yet?” Act II is when the real dancing begins; the pinnacle of which is, of course, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation. So what makes a good Sugar Plum Fairy? She must be authoritative, radiant and delicate in equal parts. Sugar Plum’s overarching brand identity is “regal.” Lev Ivanov’s original choreography is the blueprint for most contemporary Sugar Plums, but each dancer must put her own individual stamp on it. From a technical point of view, the choreography demands control and maturity, and the repetitive combinations of piqués, dévelopés and pas de chats should come off as precise and neat, yet should travel. The challenge is finishing crisply after a dizzying series of posés turns, which Les Grands Ballets' statuesque Anya Nesvitaylo accomplished ably.

© Veronyc Vachon
© Veronyc Vachon

The Sugar Plum Fairy's variation comes on after a pretty fabulous Spanish section (Emma Garau Cima brings a little Kitri-esque magic to her épaulement, and Andrew Wright and Hamish Nieh are very solid). The Russian section (Trepak Ivan) is danced by the energetic, cherubically-coiffed Celestin Boutin. It’s a perennial crowd-pleaser and Boutin didn’t disappoint. The Dew Drops held their own, with the three ladies (Sarah Kingston with Vera Kvarcakova and Anna Ishii) executing near-perfect fouettés and precise ports de bras. Kiara Felder shone in her Waltz of the Flowers solo. She has lovely stage presence and a well-balanced approach to the choreography.

It bears pointing out that the Chinese Tea and Arabian Coffee sections (in this production simply labelled ‘The Oriental’ and ‘The Chinese’) feel a little ethnically problematic for modern sensibilities. The Chinese is three finger-wagging East Asian caricatures and the Oriental brings to mind the kind of slinky harem-esque exoticism of Ingres and Bellini. It’s an issue faced by ballet companies all over the world. What to do with the cultural imperialism of the Nutcracker? It’s certainly no fault of the dancers of Les Grands Ballets, who in this case handled the material with as much integrity as they could muster. I don’t know the answer to this, but it’s something the dance world needs to examine in a little more depth.

Those aside, this was a nicely executed production of a classic favourite in the ballet calendar. I’ll leave the final words to my co-critic: “The mice were funny. The tree grew and grew. Did I like it? Yes.”

***11