Guest author Matthew Paluch sees English National Ballet's Nutcracker
|Company||English National Ballet|
|Venue||London Coliseum, London|
|Date||20 December 2022|
If you're looking for a guaranteed festive theatre experience look no further than The Nutcracker, right? Can we even begin to fathom how many Nuts productions are potentially happening globally throughout December? Let's not go there, but let's be realistic – they won't all be good.
So where and what Nuts is everyone seeing? Comment below! In London we have three major outings: The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, English National Ballet at the London Coliseum, and Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Royal Albert Hall. ENB opened on December 15th, and I attended on the 20th.
So, to their current version. Wayne Eagling was the Director of the company from 2005 until 2012, and he brought this production – or a variation of – from his previous company Dutch National Ballet (1991-2003). Originally it was a co-production with the Dutch choreographer Toer van Schayk who is also described as a scenic and costume designer, painter, and sculptor!
ENB credits van Schayk only for the ‘concept', and in fact the initial version of the production stayed in Holland, and Eagling reworked it for the UK – I've seen the original production in all its Amsterdam glory –it's a beautiful beast. The Muziektheater (part of the Stopera complex) is a colossal space and is also the permanent home of the company. This kind of situation lends to a certain kind of (big budget) production – one with large, permanent sets that give performances a sense of gravitas.
Having been a member of ENB, I'm aware of the touring nature of the company. And this reality impacts all decisions. Productions need to be transportable, but this necessity comes with consequences. Often ENB productions look like they've just been unpacked – not a criticism necessarily, just a fact. And this Nutcracker has always had that feeling, often made worse at the Coliseum as it's a barn that benefits from something meatier to fill it.
One of the main differences in Eagling's Nutcracker is that the role of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy are performed by the same dancer. There's a moment in the transformation scene in Act 1 where not only the tree grows in size, but so does Clara – from child to adult. And it's clever in action… magical even.
Elsewhere Act 2 is based in, and around a Puppet Theatre rather than the quintessential Land of Sweets. This relates back to the dolls' scene in Act 1, and let's stay with Act 1 for now.
All, or most Nutcrackers start with the Party Scene where the family and characters are introduced. But Eagling's Party seems to move at relentless, supersonic speed throughout. The fallout? No real depth of character or related communication of it. Good mise-en-scène is hard to do, it takes thinking and proficient rehearsal. What's missing is dynamic layering, if there was variation of speed, we'd see much more of what's actually happening. That said the children of Tring Park School look very well-rehearsed but could do with some mime masterclasses – it reads a little like charades. And, as is often the case, the work of James Streeter speaks for itself. His Drosselmeyer brought the magic. Literally, but also through the thought behind, and the texture within the work. He acts as the go-to axis, in the all too often frantic scene.
Things improve after the Party. The Battle is a hoot. The costuming for the mice and soldiers (by Peter Farmer) is OTT and it works. The choreography feels dynamic with an urban edge – I'm sure I saw the younger mice doing a twerk of sorts. The cannon is also on the loudest setting which only adds to the ambiance.
Erina Takahashi as the more mature Clara did her absolute best in making uncoordinated choreography look coordinated, but more about her dancing later once she's transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Next follows the infamous Snowflakes, but I'd describe Eagling's version more like a blizzard – which is meant as a compliment. This is the kind of perpetual motion you want to see on stage. Punctuated with dynamic stops and space-encompassing travel. The choreography features key motifs that need a little work though: grand jeté could all do with a little more lift in the hips, shunts in arabesque need to find 90 degrees sooner, and the whole scene could benefit from more clarity of footwork. Think icicles, not slush.
Act 2, like many other productions, has had some recent reworking of the ‘internationally' flavoured divertissements. This, of course, is coming off the back of the very important work Phil Chan and Gina Pazcoguin (of New York City Ballet) are discussing with their call to arms questioning, and the following publication Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact. Chan shares their experience of “navigating conversations around race, representation, and inclusion” focusing on the (politically incorrect) Chinese divertissement. Chan's website has a pledge available for all those in agreement to sign. From ballet company directors to theatre patrons alike (https://www.yellowface.org/pledge). Important to note that ENB hasn't signed the pledge thus far. Reconfirmed by Chan on Twitter on December 16: “For some reason @ENBallet has yet to sign the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge. Sounds like they should give their Chinese a haircut and get on board!”
Regarding the accountability/cancelling dichotomy, The Guardian released a piece on December 7 with clear rhetoric: “Ukraine's culture minister has called on the country's western allies to boycott Russian culture, urging a halt to performances of the music of Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers until the end of the war.” The RB and ENB both politely declined to do so. David Butcher, the chief executive of Manchester's Hallé Orchestra confirmed, “I don't think it's appropriate as a pioneering creative organisation to cancel, pause or self-censor, in our case, great music which deserves to be performed and heard.” So take from that what you will. It clearly depends on the individual and the production – some won't go at all, some will avert their eyes in select ‘moments', others close their ears throughout – or both! I managed to keep both open for the sake of this piece!
So how does Nutcracker Act 2 feel in 2022? A moment of seasonal warmth or a misrepresentation/cancel culture minefield?
Well, there's a big problem. Yes, there's no questionable Arabian anymore – but it hasn't been replaced with a less questionable version. It's just been excluded altogether! Who made this very bad decision? Was Eagling involved at all? Fine – a problematic three-act ballet is an actual problem, but surely a two-minute divertissement can be dealt with rather than just deleted. I think this is lazy and does the genre zero favours. Deal with issues – don't be in denial for ages and then just disengage. Lord.
So what's left…
Spanish was very well done. Nothing profound choreographically but the cast oozed flavour. Bravo Jung ah Choi, Francesca Velicu and Victor Prigent. Is Prigent doing the Nephew/Prince role this season? He looks like he should be.
Chinese still feels quite heavy-handed (mis)representation-wise – perhaps they should be speaking with Chan ASAP… but what can't be denied is Katja Khaniukova slamming it home alright. Talk about execution of fouetté turns. Yes all the way.
Mirlitons is a weird number. It's danced by the character Louise, Clara's older sister whom we met in Act 1. This solo can't hold much joy to dance. It's insanely complex, with turn combinations so finickity they still look wrong even when they're right, but Julia Conway did a more than admirable job. Though the question still remains: why is Louise now a butterfly?
The Russian number is also a weird one: part Trepak, part Orthodox, it feels confused. But Shunhei Fuchiyama seemingly didn't care. His rendition of the Trepak soloist was second to none. It takes a lot for me to be interested in blatant bravado, but that clarity of execution has to be seriously considered. Beautiful work.
The Waltz of the Flowers has some strong moments. The choreography uses canon very astutely and the flowing entrances and exits really take the observer on a fragrant ride. Eagling features fouetté action throughout, and personally I'd like to see a lot more execution of devant and seconde – the arabesque seems to arrive too soon and too easily. Precious Adams as one of two Lead Flowers really holds the attention of the theatre with her in-command presence.
And to the main couple. Lorenzo Trossello is a recent addition to ENB from Northern Ballet with lots of potential. He seems like a capable partner and has real energy about his dancing. He executed a stunning first double tour in his solo and didn't seem to fatigue during the evening. That said he's a little way to go with his stage presence and performance charisma. But there's still plenty of time as he's only 25!
And back to Takahashi. I've had the pleasure of seeing her dance since the late 90s and I don't think I've ever seen a bad show. She's a total pro–class all the way, and she looked a million dollars as the Sugar Plum… sparkles for days! Her dancing has always been big, but it feels bigger if that's possible. And more relaxed in a way. She's also always had the most beautiful arms in the biz, and that's still very much the case. And I totally love her reverence, which encapsulates who she is as a dancer: elegant, determined and humble. Takahashi is a Ballerina. Fact.
The Coliseum was packed last night and a member of the front-of-house staff said that's been the case since the season opened. Isn't that brilliant news? Aspects of the production aren't all high-end, and some moments are darn right clunky and awkward. But in the end, it's a (generally) very high level of dancing offered to a chock-a-block theatre. And what's not to love about that.
Note: please deal with the cast list. It's wrong and doesn't seem fair to the dancers actually performing – or to writers trying to give the right people the credit they deserve – so apologies in advance if any names are wrong here, but what can one do?!