When Wayne Eagling’s Nutcracker opened in 2010, the ballet was only just finished and in this first run English National Ballet struggled to absorb the new choreography and polish the mechanical artifices. Its revival at Christmas since then has allowed the ballet to settle down well in the festive winter season of the company and audiences now accept it as an enjoyable family Christmas treat. The opening night this year proved that the production is almost ready for its run at the Coliseum. It lacked a bit of nerve, but was still beautiful to watch.  

In Eagling’s version, the story of the Nutcracker is set in Edwardian England and the sober elegance of the period prevents the magical elements of the story from completely overriding the piece. Fantasy is certainly an important ingredient of the ballet, with a dreamed world full of exoticism, and the role of Drosselmeyer fuelling Clara’s imagination with magic tricks...but in Eagling’s version this seems to be delivered in exact measure. One of the strongest assets to achieve this balance is the design provided by Peter Farmer. His richly detailed and colourful costumes contrast with the sparse and neat sets, avoiding the too pompous magnificence that fairy tales in magic lands often portray in classical ballets.

For this performance, Alina Cojocaru performed the leading role of Clara with grace and charm. Her phrases flew fluidly and her technique seemed effortless. Her timing was not always precise however, and she anticipated the music in some passages. She was partnered well by Max Westwell, as the Nutcracker, and by Alejandro Virelles, as the Nephew. The Cuban dancer, who makes his debut in the role, shone especially in the Grand Pas de deux of Act 2, where his flamboyant technique left a good impression. Had he been a bit sharper, he would have conveyed the feeling of enjoyment more easily. From the solo roles, Ksenia Ovsyanick performed with assurance her three roles of the evening; Louise, the lead Snowflake and the Mirliton. She especially made the most of the latter, where she commanded the stage with her quiet but sinewy presence. Alison McWhinney was her companion in leading the Snowflakes and she took the opportunity to confirm her ascending presence in the company. She also later led the Waltz of the Flowers, together with Laurretta Summerscales, who, as always, was a complete delight to watch. Her precise musicality and refined technique are ballerina's gifts that she exploits with impressive brilliance.

From the male cohort, Yonah Acosta proved the role of the Spanish dancer too short to show off his talents. Shevelle Dynott had a longer opportunity to shine as the Arabian dancer, but he missed the chance to extract all the sensuality and subtlety of the role. Fernando Bufalá performed some good showy steps as the Russian dancer and Vitor Menezes was an excellent partner as one of the leading Flowers. James Streeter, in the character role of the Mouse King, invested the rodent with a childish bold nature that made him a lovable evil creature.

The ensembles were strong, packing their dancing with good technical skills. The children, with Sereina Mowlen and Basil James in the leading roles, performed with confidence and poise, and the female corps the ballet offered an excellent performance in the two most famous numbers of the ballet, the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flower. The latter suffered, however, from the languorous pace that the slow tempo of the music imposed to some of the numbers of the ballet.

Despite all its merits, the performance that evening was only given a mild ovation. ENB’s dancers were technically good but lacked the freshness and enthusiasm that later performances in the season will surely possess. As performances progress and dancers become more comfortable in their roles I am sure they will make the humorous moments of the ballet more effective, the acting at the beginning more vivid and the dancing throughout the ballet more vigorous and joyous. They are nearly there.