David Nixon's The Nutcracker for Northern Ballet continues to delight. It is festive, fresh, and fun! This Nutcracker is Clara's adventure, and Rachael Gillespie has to be one of the top Claras on the Christmas block. Her enormous eyes, sparkling footwork and lovely lines combined with her remarkable dramatic power are a joy from beginning to end.

Rachael Gillespie The Nutcracker
© Bill Cooper

As the house lights dim, we first glimpse her staring out through the snowy windows onto the street, waiting with excitement for guests to arrive. A front cloth scene introduces us to the Edwards family, her young brother Frederick (Filippo Di Vilio in his element) annoyingly full of exuberant mischief, complete with overworked maids and interfering butler. Louise, her older sister, a radiant Saeka Shirai is waiting for her beau James (Jonathan Hanks) and their gentle romance is period appropriate. Clara's reimagining of them in Act 2 as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier is apt – if it is indeed a dream.

The party at the Edwards' house is action packed, every character has a backstory, reinforcing the company's reputation for creating believable narratives. Nixon infuses the usual gavotte style party dances with classical repertoire which is refreshing, and the ensemble work, including the children, was well drilled and yet obviously enjoyed. Dominique Larose, herself a principal dancer of note, kept drawing one's attention as a hilarious Grandma Edwards, supported by Wesley Branch as Grandpa.

Northern Ballet The Nutcracker
© Bill Cooper

Joseph Taylor's Herr Drosselmeyer, reminiscent of Dahl's Willy Wonka, brought the first whiff of magic to the proceedings, introducing his automated dolls as entertainment. Julie Nunès, as part of the Louis XIV style French pair was splendidly over-exaggerated, and the unusual body-popping choreography for the Chinese Doll was right up Matthew Topliss' street.

Remarkably, the tussle between Clara and Frederick over the Nutcracker doll resulting in its breakage, was totally believable (usually a clunky moment), and Gillespie's ensuing rib-wracking sobs didn't need sound for us to feel her despair.

All too soon the guests depart, Clara gently relieved of her present and sent to bed. Of course she is soon back in the dark living room to discover a wee band of mice and their round-bellied King, preparing tor battle. The following scene is almost farcical and hugely entertaining with George Liang as the Mouse King limbering up atop his huge cheese with an energetic stretching routine and some cool moves as the Nutcracker doll and his moustachioed infantry march and posture with vigour. It did seem a little one-sided but the Mouse King's comedy death and exit cannot have given any young audience members nightmares.

Harris Beattie was revealed as the Nutcracker Prince, and danced the iconic snow pas de deux with Clara. Beattie and Gillespie were well matched in every way, and took all the challenges of the swooping lifts and slides of the choreography that made them look like they were having the time of their young lives. However, I am not convinced that this entirely suits the grandeur and the passion of this particularly splendid passage of Tchaikovsky's score, although it does suit the characters. Sparkly snowflakes soon appeared and created the desired swirl and whirl of a storm, although, as with Waltz of the Flowers, there was a lack of the pleasing corps de ballet symmetry, maybe in an effort to give all of them an opportunity to shine.

Saeka Shirai and Jonathan Hanks The Nutcracker
© Kyle Baines

Act 2 brings the usual plethora of pleasing divertissements, and lots more dancing for a very involved Clara and her partner. Shirai as the Sugar Plum Fairy (delicate and dazzling) and Hanks (the archetypal handsome and refined Prince) sailed through the complexities of Nixon's take on the pas de deux and coda with classy ease, her pirouettes and his elevation and line, top class. 

Northern Ballet are on fine form and we will watch with interest to see how they progress under the directorship of Federico Bonelli.

****1