English National Ballet was formed, as London Festival Ballet, in 1950: funded by an eccentric impresario; inspired by the upcoming Festival of Britain; and based upon the international reputations of two leading dancers (Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin). For two decades, Festival Ballet teetered on the edge of financial oblivion, kept afloat (as so many others have been, and still are) by annual seasons of The Nutcracker.

Guilherme Menezes (the Nutcracker) and Shiori Kase (Clara) in ENB’s <i>Nutcracker</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Guilherme Menezes (the Nutcracker) and Shiori Kase (Clara) in ENB’s Nutcracker
© Laurent Liotardo

That necessity fostered an enduring tradition, this being the 68th successive year of ENB opening its Christmas season with The Nutcracker; now on its tenth interpretation of the magical Tchaikovsky score adapted by former artistic director, Wayne Eagling, from his production (created with Toer van Schayk) at Dutch National Ballet. 

Eagling and van Schayk established a more obvious association between the theatrical action of Act 1 – as always, a Christmas Eve house party – and the fantasy dance of Act 2. The entertainment in the opening act includes a brief segment in which children are absorbed by a puppet theatre. Having been frightened by a mouse, earlier that evening, and having received the Christmas gift of a mechanical Nutcracker doll, young Clara retires to bed in a state of such excitement that she dreams the ensuing fantasies. 

Sophia Mucha – a student at Tring Park School - returns to this pivotal role with an ebullient confidence. Her startled expression, as Clara awakes from her eventful dream, brought audible appreciation from the audience. Clara’s brother, Freddie was portrayed by another Tring Park student, Emile Gooding, in fine mischievous form.

Artists of ENB in <i>Nutcracker</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Artists of ENB in Nutcracker
© Laurent Liotardo

Two character transformations are fundamental to Eagling's narrative. Firstly, when young Clara dreams herself to be a woman; and secondly in the seesaw of changes between the Nutcracker doll (in human form) and Drosselmeyer’s nephew; a “revolving door” of “one in-one out”, which is most irritating towards the end of the luscious petit pas de deux when the Nutcracker – who has been injured, fighting the Mouse King (James Streeter)  – staggers offstage to be replaced, in Clara’s dream, with the handsome young man she had idolised at the party.  This strange and mistimed substitution disrupts the romantic imagery of beautiful music, richly performed by the ENB Philharmonic, under Gavin Sutherland’s direction.   

Guilherme Menezes danced impressively – if anonymously – as the Nutcracker, wearing a cumbersome, full-face, rigid mask. The nephew was danced by Joseph Caley – a recent ENB recruit from Birmingham Royal Ballet – who gave an assured and charismatic performance, worthy of the post-show announcement of his promotion to Lead Principal by artistic director, Tamara Rojo (exactly five years’ since she awarded the same uplift to Vadim Muntagirov, after the same role). Caley’s princely performance was before a real Prince since a brief flurry of the National Anthem prior to the opening announced that the Company’s Patron, HRH the Duke of York, was in the House.

Artists of ENB in <i>Nutcracker</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Artists of ENB in Nutcracker
© Laurent Liotardo

The grown-up Clara – a role that incorporates the grand pas de deux, more usually associated with the Sugar Plum Fairy – was exquisitely performed by Shiori Kase. Eagling’s choreography for the adagio is fearsome, incorporating a relentless procession of lifts, pirouettes and shoulder-high jumps and yet it was danced with an apparently effortless confidence and musicality in a stunning mix of vivacity and strength. This tough adagio is followed by a miniscule variation for the nephew, bringing the ballerina quickly back to the stage for her 3-minute variation, which morphs from demanding step combinations into energy-sapping fouettés. That Kase was so superb throughout is also testament to Caley’s strength of partnering; presenting his ballerina to such great effect that she was able to concentrate on delivering a performance of subtle refinement aligned to steely technique. 

As Drosselmeyer, Fabian Reimar was a highly experienced late substitute for the injured Junor Souza; excelling as magician and puppet master as well as partnering Alison McWhinney (delightful as Clara’s elder sister, Louise) in the Mirliton dance. The five national dances were enthusiastically performed with a notable cameo from Francesca Velicu in the Chinese dance; an exciting Spanish number by Adela Ramirez, Anjuli Hudson and Daniel McCormick; and the Arabian dance (much changed since the première) provided a sultry slice of exoticism. The corps de ballet achieved strong harmony both as snowflakes and flowers; the latter impressively led by Senri Kou and Tiffany Hedman.

Shiori Kase (Clara) and Joseph Caley (the Nephew) in ENB’s <i>Nutcracker</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Shiori Kase (Clara) and Joseph Caley (the Nephew) in ENB’s Nutcracker
© Laurent Liotardo

An extra emotional tug arose from the death of Peter Farmer, this production’s designer, on New Year’s Day, towards the end of last season’s run. The evocative Victorian imagery of his sets and costumes gives the feel of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, enhanced by the presence of a hot air balloon, crossed with J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. My favourite design element is the impressive house façade alongside the frozen river (with its convivial skaters), which provides the ballet’s opening and closing scenes. 

Last year, after eight consecutive seasons - already more than the average lifespan of an ENB Nutcracker - I felt it might be time to say “Come in, No 10, your time is up”, but through the power of exuberant performance, Eagling’s holistic story-telling has had a revitalising facelift.      

****1