The Nutcracker has been a constant in the repertoire of English National Ballet for over 70 years. Unseasonably – in August 1950 – The Kingdom of the Sweets (typically the lion’s share of Act 2) was danced at the company’s inaugural performance (it was then known as London Festival Ballet) and the full ballet to Tchaikovsky’s marvellous score has been a highlight of the company’s winter season in every subsequent year. To date, there have been ten productions and the current incumbent is a reworking by former artistic director, Wayne Eagling of his production (co-choreographed with Toer van Schayk) of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King for Dutch National Ballet. That ballet remains in the repertoire of the Dutch company (being performed again, this month) and Eagling’s revision for ENB is now in its eleventh year, equalling the record for longevity held by Ronald Hynd’s production (1965-1976).

Aitor Arrieta (Nutcracker)
© Laurent Liotardo

With a surfeit of “Nuts” in London’s winter season (The Royal Ballet, BRB and Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures are all also presenting other versions more or less simultaneously), it’s a pity to report that the ENB production pales in comparison and seems overdue for replacement before Hynd’s record is broken. The investment required for two new full-length ballets in the current season (Creature and Raymonda) will have precluded ENB’s current capacity to commission a new Nutcracker but one hopes that it will become a priority for next season.

There have always been aspects of this ballet that have either infuriated or puzzled me, such as the needless, repetitive transitions between the characters of the Nutcracker and the Nephew: they even have an “excuse me” swap right in the middle of the luscious, romantic music of Tchaikovsky’s petit pas de deux; it is clearly intended to suggest that the doll and the nephew are one and the same but that illusion just doesn’t work. Another oddity is that unrealistic digital snow is projected against a scrim at the beginning and end of the ballet (with no snow falling on the various characters in the scene being enacted) but then artificial snow actually falls on the corps de ballet, dancing as Snowflakes, at the end of Act 1. Why the distinction? 

Erina Takahashi (Clara) and Aitor Arrieta (Nutcracker)
© Laurent Liotardo

The Drosselmeyer party is exceedingly dull and the antics of naughty children, a manic Scotsman and a grumpy Grandfather have worn very thin over the past decade. I have never warmed to the notion of a bulky, mechanical nutcracker (rather than the traditional form that adorns a million mantelpieces, every December). Unfortunately, the traditional scene in which Clara’s ungrateful brother tries to wrestle the doll away from her and breaks it in the process was pre-empted when the doll’s head fell off beforehand (kudos to Annalise Wainwright-Jones and Felix Fewell-Russell, as young Clara and Freddie, for taking this mishap in their stride). This was one of a few set and lighting malfunctions: shadows could be seen against the backcloth as scenery was changed and the closing image of the distant hot air balloon careering off into the wild yonder became a stop-start affair with a stationary balloon suddenly shooting off as if jet-propelled!

English National Ballet in Nutcracker
© Laurent Liotardo

As one expects with this excellent company, these production problems were largely compensated by a range of enjoyable performances, not least by Erina Takahashi as the grown-up Clara, celebrating her 25th season with the company, a fact that seems highly improbable given her youthful appearance and exuberance. She performed the fiendishly complex variation to the closing grand pas de deux with clarity, composure and excellence that has been many years in the making. 

Francesco Gabriele Frola replaced Joseph Caley as Drosselmeyer’s nephew, bringing an air of dignified assurance to his partnering and a quality of elevation to his jumps that appeared to require no obvious preparation. Aitor Arrieta drew the short straw of having to perform as the Nutcracker while wearing a full-face mask and one felt for him in his own pas de deux with Takahashi – it must be challenging to partner and lift without being able to see properly and whilst pretending to be injured in one arm! Fabian Reimair brought an air of competent authority to his interpretation of Drosselmeyer, the Showman; and the highest praise that I can give to William Simmons is that – until he removed the mask in the curtain call – I had thought that it was James Streeter in the Mouse King’s outfit.

Erina Takahashi and Francesco Gabriele Frola in ENB's Nutcracker
© Laurent Liotardo

Dancers generally like the orchestra to perform slowly but here that seemed to be stretched to the limit: when Katja Khaniukova was spinning fouettés at the end of her brief stint in the Chinese dance, it seemed that she might have to stop half-way through to let the orchestra catch up! The several dance divertissements of Act 2 were all performed with great joy and excellence although residual aspects of racial stereotyping might be another reason for ENB to commission a new Nutcracker for a modern audience.