Well, we are one more Nutcracker nearer death’. Forgive me for rehashing this well-worn quotation from the formidable ballet critic, Richard Buckle, written almost fifty years’ ago.  It was a good line that deserves to be remembered even though it represents a glass-half-empty view of the ballet that I don’t care to share, preferring instead to gobble up any opportunity to add another Nutcracker to life’s experience; and here – for me, at least – was a new Nut to relish.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in <i>The Nutcracker</i> at the Royal Albert Hall © Annabel Moeller
Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall
© Annabel Moeller

How can it be a chore to sit amongst a happy audience (in this case, filling The Royal Albert Hall with 5,000 people) enjoying one of the most satisfying ballet scores ever composed? And, here the music is (literally) elevated with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Koen Kessels, situated centrally above the stage, performing Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous score superbly; those delicious unchained melodies flowing sweetly to the farthest reaches of this vast space. 

There are, of course, hundreds of productions of The Nutcracker being performed around the world at this time but this one has the unique quality of having been absorbed completely within this special venue. It would work in no other space. Sir Peter Wright’s original production is as old as Birmingham Royal Ballet, created by the BRB’s founding director in the year that he led the former Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet to its new home in Britain’s second city (1990). Last year, it was transformed to fit the exacting requirements of performing ballet in The Royal Albert Hall; most notably, in terms of the constraints on set design caused by a non-proscenium setting without flies or wings.  

Reimaging Wright’s production has been achieved largely through the spectacle of 59 Productions’ projection designs, including an enormous, colourful fir tree that enveloped the whole orchestra, and “etchasketch” style drawings to introduce and describe the national dances. Wintry realism was brought to The Land of the Snow by a sustained shower of white flakes. 

Spectacular design incarnations and wonderful music, superbly performed, although significant, need to be inhabited and interpreted by similarly excellent performances on the stage; a feat made more problematic by characterisations having to carry across the cavernous space. The dancers of Birmingham Royal Ballet rose to this challenge with a collective assurance across every role. 

César Morales, from Chile, has been dancing as a principal in England for the past fourteen years (first with English National Ballet and, since 2008, at BRB) and he continues to perform with a rare elegance and refinement, improving with the passing of the years. His épaulement, line, sophisticated musical phrasing and secure partnering was a masterclass in the graceful skill of a danseur noble, exquisitely suited to the princely roles such as this. There is nothing flashy about the discerning dancing of Morales, just a stylish aesthetic, consistently applied.

The arresting grand pas de deux was danced by Morales with Momoko Hirata, epitomising the delicacy of the glittering Sugar Plum Fairy. It was a glorious finale but for Hirata this ending is also her beginning since the Sugar Plum’s contribution to the ballet is effectively confined to the distinction of those seven minutes and a brief coda. Karla Doorbar was suitably and sweetly charming in the much more substantial ingénue role of Clara, the channel for the fantastic story of Christmas toy soldiers coming to life and battling the army of giant rats. This scene is often played by children and for laughs (nothing wrong with that) but here the Soldiers and Rats are performed by company dancers, the swordfighting has been choreographed effectively and the action is more compelling than usual. There were outstanding performances throughout the many soloist roles but special mention is deserved for the terrific jumping vignette by Tzu-Chao Chou as the Jack-in-the-box, with Samara Downs and Céline Gittens bringing decorous grace to the roles, respectively, of the Snow and Rose Fairies.   

In this ballet, Drosselmeyer (Jonathan Payn) is a maker of mechanical toys, like Dr Coppélius (or the unnamed toymaker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) rather than the more traditional magician of The Nutcracker. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s long-serving artistic director, David Bintley – due to step down in the summer – engaged Simon Callow to provide brief narration as the voice of Drosselmeyer and perhaps the well-known actor also had Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in mind, since his faux-Germanic accent seemed to channel Gert Fröbe’s Baron Bomburst. The narration was a helpful concept although the words were occasionally indistinct.    

This was a production – unique to this special venue – that presented a spectacle synonymous with the spirit of Christmas. For all of us privileged to see this show, it was – of course – one Nutcracker nearer to death, but it was also one more sparkling reason to affirm the joy of living at this most magical of all seasons.   

 

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