While some criticize ballet for lacking innovation, bringing back time and again the same shows we’ve seen a hundred times over, there is one classic that will never tire. Every Christmas season ballet companies around the world put on their own version of The Nutcracker, the timeless holiday tale of a toy brought to life and a magical journey through a winter wonderland. The National Ballet of Canada kicked off their month-long Nutcracker season Saturday night at the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts in Toronto and it would be an understatement to say they got off to a shaky start.

© Bruce Zinger
© Bruce Zinger

James Kudelka’s choreography and libretto (created in 1995) offer an interpretation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story that centers on family. Instead of a young girl at the heart of the action, she shares the spotlight with her older brother. Their beloved housemaid and eccentric uncle become the Empress and Grand Duke that lead them through the wonderland. The Nutcracker, far from a stranger, is the kids’ best friend, Peter. Animals replace many of the instances where toys often come to life in different variations of this show. A pair of bears, one a ballerina and the other on skates, dance a warm and fuzzy pas de deux, an incredibly lifelike horse puts on a jig with Uncle Nikolai, and wolfhounds, a goat, a rooster, sheep and unicorns all make appearances. It’s a beautiful adaptation full of quirky surprises and magical tableaux, notably when the Sugar Plum Fairy makes her grand entrance by being revealed from inside a massive Fabergé-style egg.

With inspired choreography, lavish sets and sparkling costumes, this Nutcracker seemed to have everything going for it. The failure of the performance, let it be known, wasn’t down to the dancers in any way. In a news article in the Toronto Star published the same morning, a long-time stage manager for the National Ballet admits that the heavy production full of moving pieces requires a harder – read slicker – floor that creates an undesirable working surface for the dancers. He recounts dancers falling a lot since the first season of Kudelka’s choreography, and it seems the company has done little to improve the situation since, beyond warning the dancers to be careful.

As a dancer myself, I am particularly privy to the importance of having a decent – hopefully sprung – surface to dance on. The main concern is injury and upsettingly this Saturday night one of Canada’s star dancers got seriously hurt for having to work in these obviously dangerous conditions. Not only is the floor slick, it is covered in bits of glitter-snow that haven’t been properly swept up during intermission. So, minutes into the second act, Guillaume Côté, as the Nutcracker, fell and limped off stage (with a torn ACL that will put him out for months). Accidents happen, for sure, but this was no isolated event.

© Bruce Zinger
© Bruce Zinger
In total, there were five wipe outs and innumerable stumbles and crash-ins throughout the performance, even before Côté’s fall put everyone on edge. First soloist Keiichi Hirano did a great job when he later stepped in to partner Greta Hogkinson, the Sugar Plum Fairy, in lieu of Côté but this was disturbingly dangerous as well. Both were clearly uncomfortable tackling the choreography together, and though Hirano was admirable there were nonetheless several instances where Hodgkinson could have gotten gravely injured as well. Overwhelmed, she had to take a break from her otherwise flawless composure to shake and cry during a quick bow, down on one knee, center stage.

Merit is due to Robert Stephen who was an outstanding Nikolai and also picked up the show only seconds after Côté’s fall with a commanding improvised solo. Kudelka’s Nutcracker is also completely enchanting when done right. The role of Nikolai is full of impressive high jumps and beautiful turns. The Snow Queen has the difficult task of being upside down, toes pointed high in the air as her two icicles carry her across the stage, and must make it look elegant... which Xiao Nan Yu achieves with great ease. The tradition of casting children to perform in The Nutcracker is upheld here as well, and it isn’t just for show. Each is an important dancing role. The children who play cooks chasing after a runaway chicken are especially adorable and a testament to how much charm this ballet really has.

Kudelka’s Nutcracker is a favourite for many, but this particular performance left me feeling very tense. The larger than life production created to rival Broadway shows might well do so, but at what cost to the dancers?