‘Tis the season to be jolly, yet for balletomanes and thousands of wide-eyed children Nutcrackers are thin on the ground in London. The Royal Ballet has gone down another ETA Hoffmann route – reviving its charming Coppélia – while Birmingham Royal Ballet doesn’t pitch up at the Royal Albert Hall until after Christmas. Which leaves us Wayne Eagling’s version for English National Ballet, a Quality Street style confection which has become a fixture in the Coliseum’s Advent calendar. It has problematic storytelling, but there was much to enjoy in the dancing, especially Erina Takahashi’s Clara.

Erina Takahashi (Clara/Sugar Plum Fairy) and Francesco Gabriele Frola (Nephew)
© Laurent Liotardo

After a beautiful opening sequence, with ice-skaters rollerblading across a frozen River Thames, the action switches inside, to the party held by Clara’s parents. On a busy stage, there is much detail in the depiction of minor characters, including a drunken Scotsman and a stroppy girl whose father placates her by pinching a present from an unsuspecting boy. Masterminding the entertainment is James Streeter’s Drosselmeyer – avuncular rather than mysterious – presenting a nutcracker soldier to Clara (the confident, poised Sophie Carter). When Clara is sent to bed, though, Eagling swaps his child dancer for ENB Lead Principal Erina Takahashi and then skews the traditional story. Clara does not defeat the Mouse King – who sports a scary skull – but escapes with the Nutcracker in Drosselmeyer’s hot air balloon. The Nutcracker sometimes morphs into Drosselmeyer’s nephew (different dancers) and back. In Act 2, they all land in a Puppet Theatre (does dietary guidance dictate against a Land of Sweets these days?) where the Mouse King is swiftly vanquished and Clara assumes the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the following divertissement. Take consolation in the fact that you may not be the only one confused.

Act 1 finale
© Laurent Liotardo

But much of the dancing was lovely. Takahashi herself is a dream of a dancer, so soft en pointe you could imagine her steps causing puffs of icing sugar to billow. Her footwork was always neat, her fouettées crisp and even. Takahashi was sensitively partnered by both Skyler Martin (behind the Nutcracker mask) and Francesco Gabriele Frola who proved he was more than just “scaffolding” in the grand pas de deux with a terrific solo full of sky-high turns. Takahashi’s famous solo glittered as delicately as the celesta Tchaikovsky employed.

The Act 2 national dances featured a few stand-out performances: Daniel McCormick swaggered and strutted in the Spanish Dance; Francesca Velicu’s agility and precision made for a superb Chinese Dance; and Ken Saruahashi’s eye-popping splits and fast-spinning tours en l’air in the Russian Dance were terrific. The ENB corps wasn’t at its most co-ordinated in the Waltz of the Snowflakes – there were elements of nerves – but Precious Adams and Isabelle Brouwers were very fine Lead Snowflakes.

Adela Ramirez, Daniel McCormick and Anjuli Hudson in the Spanish Dance
© Laurent Liotardo

The English National Ballet Philharmonic didn’t have its most distinguished evening. Under Gerry Cornelius, there were several brass slips and the woodwinds weren’t at their most characterful… early teething problems, perhaps, that will be ironed out as this long London run beds in.