The Nutcracker has become a family tradition of the Christmas season in Japan too, and the National Ballet of Japan planned nine performances of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King created for the company by Wayne Eagling in 2017. It had received mixed reviews. Some criticised the choreography as complicated and unmusical. The Mouse King seems to be featured more than necessary, interfering in the drama; the child Clara looked too young to have a crush on Drosselmeyer’s nephew. But despite criticism, it has proved a box office success and, with the current situation in Japan of increasing cases of Covid-19, the company managed to perform all the performances to full capacity audiences.

Ayako Ono (Sugar Plum Fairy) and Yudai Fukuoka (Prince)
© Hidemi Seto

Eagling has mounted his Nutcracker to several companies, but here his intention was to create a challenge for the dancers, with highly technical demands in the choreography. Now it is in the repertoire for the fourth season, and it did seem to leverage the quality of the artists. The male lead has to dance three roles – Drosselmeyer’s nephew, the Nutcracker and the Prince. The pas de deux between the Nutcracker and Clara requires complicated partnering. Not only the leads, but also the second act divertissements are demanding, and even in the Waltz of the Flowers, the corps de ballet has to dance with top-notch partnering and fast footwork, high leaps for both male and female dancers.   

Happily, the dancers lived up to expectations. The Sugar Plum Fairy was artistic director Miyako Yoshida’s signature role during her Royal Ballet days, so we can imagine her passing on her legacy to the principals here. Ayako Ono danced the dual role of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. In the opening party scene, Clara is played by child dancer Sakura Saito and when the clock strikes midnight, she grows into an adolescent girl played by Ono. Ono’s acting abilities made the audience believe she is still a teenage girl with a crush on the Nephew. Despite her small physique, Ono displayed clean and polished lines, making stunning poses when lifted by the Nephew/Nutcracker. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, she brought sheer beauty; crystalline technique, flowing movement and crisp turns and sugary sweetness, reminding us that she keeps the little innocent girl inside.

Ayako Ono (Clara) and Yudai Fukuoka (Nephew)
© Hidemi Seto

Ono’s regular partner Yudai Fukuoka conquered the challenge of dancing three roles. He is a strong and brilliant partner, especially in the first act pas de deux which consists of multiple large and small lifts, throwing and catching Clara, and other tricky partnering. He and Ono creates a lovely harmony in the Sugar Plum pas de deux with their musicality, and even the shoulder-high lifts and torch lifts looked easy, and his solo was executed with bravura and soft accurate landings. Pure heavenly bliss. 

Here, the Mouse King is given a larger role. He is not defeated in the war between the toy soldiers and so he interferes in the Waltz of the Snowflakes and chases Clara and Nutcracker into the Land of the Sweets. He has a lot of dancing as well as comic acting and is danced by a principal alternating the Nutcracker/Nephew/Prince in other performances. Kosuke Okumura, with his natural sense of comedy and dashing stage presence, almost stole the show. His interference in the pure white snow scene was criticised by many, but at least the children seemed to like this unusual appearance.

Waltz of the Snowflakes
© Hidemi Seto

The divertissements are also tricky, but each was performed delightfully. Standouts were the vibrant Russian trepak, led by the virtuoso Keigo Fukuda, and Risako Ikeda who danced the role of Louise/The Butterfly. The Butterfly is where traditional Nutcrackers have the Dance of the Mirlitons, and is partnered by Drosselmeyer. As the choreography is not always musical, with many off-balance steps and fast leaps crammed in, it is not easy, but Ikeda was just like an elegantly floating butterfly.

Waltz of the Flowers
© Hidemi Seto

In the Waltz of the Snowflakes, the corps de ballet’s movements were unified and stunning in rhythm with the children's choir located at the back of the theatre. The corps in the Waltz of the Flowers were vibrant and glamorous, like festive fireworks with its variety of patterns, leaps and diagonal movements. The flower ballerinas wore unusual bright orange tutus, inspired by poppies, an idea by costume designer Ayako Maeda that gave a flamboyant effect and brought otherworldly gloriousness to the Land of Sweets. The production design made effective use of balloons, and Misato Tomita's passionate conducting added colour and vibrancy to the performance.

Eagling’s Nutcracker is flawed. The main issue is the ending that does not end with Tchaikovsky iconic closing music that creates a bittersweet feeling of growing pains inside Clara. But it was successful in displaying the high ability of the dancers, and in entertaining a family audience with its more-than-usual amount of dancing. I was watching with my 7-year old son and he loved it!