01 January 2010

The Nutcracker - English National Ballet @ The Coliseum - Thursday 31st December 2009


It is Christmas Eve. The Stahlbaums are hosting their annual Christmas party, welcoming the arrival of their family and friends The children, Clara and Fritz, are dancing and playing as they welcome their friends too.The party grows festive with music and dance as godfather Drosselmeyer arrives. He is a skilled clock and toy maker and always full of surprises. Drosselmeyer draws everyone's attention as he presents two life-size dolls. They are the delight of the party, each taking a turn to dance.The children begin to open gifts when Drosselmeyer presents his to Clara and Fritz. Although his gift to Fritz is quite nice, he gives Clara a beautiful Nutcracker that becomes the hit of the party. Fritz becomes jealous, grabs the nutcracker from Clara and promptly breaks it. Clara is heartbroken looking on as Drosselmeyer quickly repairs the Nutcracker with a handkerchief he magically draws from the air.
As the evening grows late, the guests depart and the Stahlbaum family retires for the evening. Clara, worried about her beloved Nutcracker, sneaks back to the tree to check on him, falling asleep with him in her arms.

As the clock strikes midnight strange things begin to happen. Clara begins shrinking as her beautiful Christmas tree grows high above her. The toys around the tree come to life while the room fills with an army of mice, lead by the fierce Mouse King. As the Nutcracker awakens, he leads his army of toy soldiers into battle with the mice. The Mouse King corners the Nutcracker and battles him one-on-one. The Nutcracker seems to be no match for the Mouse King.The Nutcracker and his army can go on no longer and are captured by the mice and their King. Clara makes a final daring charge throwing her slipper at the Mouse King, hitting him square on the head. The Mouse King drops to the floor and the mice run away, carrying off their leader's lifeless body.The Nutcracker turns into a Prince and takes Clara on a journey to the Land of Snow, an enchanted forest wonderland where they are welcomed by dancing snowflakes.

The Prince escorts Clara to the Land of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Prince tells her about their daring battle with the army of mice and she rewards them with a celebration of dances.Clara awakens from her dream and finds herself by her Christmas tree with her beloved Nutcracker.

Creative team:
Music: Tchaikovsky
Choreography: Christopher Hampton
Concept and Design: Gerald Scarfe
Lighting: John Rayment

Drosselmeyer: Juan Rodrigues
Clara: Kei Akahoshi
Sugar Plum Fairy: Daria Klimentova
Prince: Vadim Muntagirov
Mouse King: Daniel Jones

Well, what a mess this was. ENB have been dragging out this conceptual nightmare since 2002 and its high time that it was consigned to the dustbin marked “Bad ideas” and taken away with the post-Christmas rubbish collection. I’m no fan of Gerald Scarfe by any count anyway (though I would go to the ends of the earth for his lovely wife, Jane Asher, whom I met several times when I worked in a posh bookshop in the King’s Road in Chelsea eons ago, and who is as sweet and charming as her cake designs). Scarfe’s designs for this ballet are in the same category as Zandra Rhodes’ designs for opera – badly conceived and with no real feeling for or understanding of the art form. The concept is poor to begin with – the action of the ballet is updated to a vaguely modern period and so loses all the charm and prettiness of “Christmas past”. Instead, we get garish colours, cartoony costumes and visual untidiness, all of which detract from the story and the action, just so that Mr. Scarfe’s ego can be stroked. Many of the characters wear costumes and wigs that look like those worn by people in the Dr. Seuss books. The army of mice wear tight red pyjamas blotched with black that make them resemble mini Friesian cows with bad sunburn, and gas masks with huge Mickey Mouse ears, which must be hell to breathe in, let alone see through. Act II costumes are almost universally dreary, bringing little colour to a stage starved of glamour and sparkle. .

That Scarfe has no real understanding of ballet is amply illustrated in an in-programme interview with the choreographer, in which it slips out that some of the scenery had to be jettisoned before the first performances simply because it takes up too much of the stage and encroaches onto the space needed for large numbers of dancers. There are also a couple of rather bad taste interpolations; for instance, Nutcracker is traditionally the ballet that parents take their sprogs to – can you imagine trying to explain to a 7 year old why the character of “Granpa’s Girlfriend” is called Ms. V. Aggra? The Nutcracker doll itself isn’t a traditional doll with a workable jaw but cracks nuts between its thighs. Ho ho….. nutcracker! Geddit? Drosselmeyer is no cranky uncle figure or slightly threatening magician but a weird hybrid of Shakin Stevens and Adam Ant. Scarfe’s concept ideas also run out completely by Act II, in which Clara and her story are completely sidelined and she becomes a mere spectator, forced to watch the goings-on from a wonky pavilion created from huge chocolate boxes. Neither does his imagination run to providing a fully-rounded ending to the story, which simply fizzles out with several important issues unaddressed and unresolved.

Choreography was bland and unimaginative or simply failed to take account of the music (half of the music during which the Christmas Tree grows to an enormous size is doled out to Clara and Drosselmeyer in a flabby, pointless pas de deux which serves no dramatic purpose whatsoever). That Hampson is completely up his own arse is neatly illustrated by a couple of his comments in the in-programme interview mentioned above. When asked whether his choreography is meant to be deliberately provocative, Hampson states “It pushes the art form to look beyond its classical boundaries, and for people who don’t enjoy it, it reconfirms their love of traditional productions”. To the question “Do you get fan mail?”, he replies “I do….and I have had hate mail too (which I equally enjoy) asking “What have you done to the traditional Nutcracker? Sending them the address of Covent Garden [home of the Royal Ballet, notes for its extremely traditional production of Nutcracker] normally does it!” Now that’s just pomposity and sheer arrogance.

Added to this is the fact that ENB simply does not have the calibre of dancers necessary to pull off an enormous London production. Several of the principals seemed unable to cope with the demands of the (poor) choreography or maybe had simply given up trying – Vadim Muntagirov may well be able to hop around the stage elegantly but has absolutely no ability to partner, leaving Klimentova’s Sugar Plum Fairy dangerously unsupported and exposed and even throwing her completely off balance during the final bars of the grand pas de deux in Act II, resulting in a horribly scrappy fish dive which nearly didn’t come off (this is what it should look like, and didn't) . There were at least two members of the corps de ballet who were merely going through the motions, and not very well at that either, putting in minimum effort and frankly barely good enough for panto in Wimbledon, let alone a large ballet production in central London. The company look completely lost on the enormous Coliseum stage, which you would assume could be partially solved with an “all hands on deck” policy – yet in Act II, at least eight dancers who took small named parts in Act I don’t even appear, leaving vast tracts of the stage completely empty and undressed. If you have an enormous cast on which to draw, this policy can be easily defended, but not if you’re operating on a shoestring.

Probably the final insult is the lack of choral accompaniment to the closing scene of Act I (The Kingdom of Snow – always my favourite scene) when a chorus of offstage voices – traditionally children’s – accompany the music. Here, the chorus is omitted completely - me and Him Indoors exchanged shocked looks wondering whether something had gone hugely wrong backstage. However, as the silence continued, it transpired that no singing was to be had and that what should be a huge, rousing finale to Act I was about as festive and Christmassy as a half-inch puddle of slush left in the bottom of a carton of vanilla ice-cream. No singing?! No singing?! In an opera house, for pete’s sake? When the children appearing at the Christmas party at the start of Act I are from the Tring School of Performing Arts? Can no child from Tring sing??? I very nearly stood up in my seat and sang myself, I was so disappointed. Well, hear this, ENB. Get yourself some singers fast (at least before you trot this crap out again next year) or you’ll be singing a different tune – accompanied by the ringing of tills in the foyer as unhappy customers ask for their money back. Me? I vow that I'm off to Birmingham in December 2010 to see how The Nutcracker SHOULD be done

What the critics said:





I tried for ages to find a clip of this production on YouTube but no joy - so here is "The Nutcracker" courtesy of Birmingham Royal Ballet.

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