The Royal Opera House’s The Nutcracker, like the switching on of the lights on Oxford Street, or the Selfridge’s window display, marks London’s countdown to Christmas. The Christmas themed ballet is a tradition that has roots in Imperial Russia. The ballet, which was commissioned by the director of the Russian Imperial theatres – complete with score from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, story by Marius Petipa (who based it on a E.T.A Hoffman fairytale), and choreography by Lev Ivanov – was first performed in 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. At the time, it received negative reviews, but since then, countless adaptations around the world have ensured its place as one of the most well known, and most beloved ballets. The score and the story are so ubiquitous in Western art, and music, that the chances are you will have heard bars of The Dance of Sugarplum Fairy, even if you’re not able to name it as such.
The ballet follows the story of Clara, a young girl who sneaks out of bed one night to play with her new toy, the Nutcracker, only to be transported to a wonderland by the travelling magician, Drosselmeyer. In this Kingdom of Sweets, she battles a mouse army, witnesses the Nutcracker transform into the Prince, and travels to the palace, where she is greeted by Sugar Plum Fairy and her court. Over 400 performances have taken place at the Royal Opera House alone. The present ROH adaptation is choreographed by Peter Wright, who first adapted the ballet in the 1980s for the Royal Ballet. His revision turned back decades of tweaks; Wright collaborated with a musicologist Roland John Wiley, to bring a version to the stage that was as faithful to the 19th century original as possible.
The Wright version, performed by the Royal Ballet, has been recorded and televised numerous times, and has thus set a standard by which all other performances are danced. None of this century’s worth of stifling history seems to sit heavily on the dancers’ shoulders, each of whom dance with abandon in their performance. Franscesca Hayward, as Clara pitches the performance of a young girl just right –vulnerable, wondering, but with plenty of pluck; she is quick-footed and teasing as she shows off her new toy to her brother in the opening scenes, bold as she brings down the Mouse King with a well aimed strike of a heel. When Drosselmayer casts his spell to whisk her away to the Kingdom of Sweets, she truly seems to shrink down, Alice-like, as the Christmas tree behind her grows, and grows – filling the entire height of the cavernous Royal Opera House.
On the night I saw the performance, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince respectively, Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli danced to thunderous rounds of applause. Cuthbertson was inundated with bouquets of flowers as she took her bows, deservedly so: at points she seemed to fly, leaping and pirouetting across the stage in a show of breathtaking athleticism and skill. Bonelli was never quite able to reach Cuthbertson’s virtuoso heights, but partnered her admirably, highlighting his own talent in his solo piece.
From my perch in the upper amphitheatre, the artifice of the stage below was apparent, but this did nothing to hamper the charm. Rather the action seemed to take place in a gigantic doll’s house, rather like the doll’s house with which Clara plays in the opening scenes of the production. The set whirled and transfigured itself; cosy rooms melted into snow filled town squares, only to be replaced by wintry fields, giving way to sumptuous palaces. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s beautifully crafted set design borrows from the look of the 19th century Imperial Russia; glitter, and gilt abound. The Kingdom of Sweets seems entirely built entirely from spun sugar. This is a light, frothy production, the two hours fly by - I left the theatre in a state of childlike wonder, thoroughly in the Christmas mood.
There is no subversion, no new edgy angle, the Royal Ballet and Wright have chosen not to reinvent the wheel; wisely so. The Nutcracker is deeply traditional, performed and staged with excellence: happily, it wears none of the weariness that we might expect from such a long running production. Peter Wright’s 90th birthday fell during this run, this year’s production is a fitting celebration and tribute to the one-of-a-kind dancer, and artistic director.