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Northern Ballet Theatre

'The Nutcracker'

by David Mead

October 13, 2007 -- Palace Theatre, Manchester, UK

It is often said that Christmas seems to come earlier every year, and mid-October does seem a little early for “The Nutcracker” to surface, but with Northern Ballet Theatre off on an extended tour of China over the festive season, artistic director David Nixon decided that an autumnal birth for his new ballet was in order.

He promised Northern Ballet’s audiences a traditional “Nutcracker” and that is exactly what he has delivered.  The mild October weather was forgotten the minute the audience walked into the auditorium and was greeted by the snowy exterior of a house, and into whose world we were about to enter.

Act I revolves mostly around the Edwards family Christmas party, and all the different characters who seem to have gathered in the house.  Apart from Clara, delightfully danced by Pippa Moore, best was Nathalie Leger’s wonderful grandma, who seemed not only to have already had a little too much to drink, but who was determined to check on every little thing that Mrs. Edwards did.  There is also a beautifully observed story within a story involving Clara’s sister Louise (Keiko Amemori), and her attempts to ‘accidentally’ grab a quiet moment with her young friend James (Hironao Takahashi), attempts that always seemed to be thwarted by her mother.  In a clever twist, these two reappear in Act II as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, so, in Clara’s dream at least, she does get her man!  The children, all from the company’s Classical Training Programme, were great too, were very natural and seemed genuinely curious and excited by Drosselmeyer’s dancing dolls.

This is a friendly “Nutcracker”, so friendly that even the Mouse King and his cohorts seem quite likable.  I would have liked to have seen a little more ‘battle’ in the battle scene, but the snowy woodland that follows is a sight to behold.  Designer Charles Cusik Smith has really come up trumps yet again with a wonderful forest of knotted icy trees.  And boy does it snow!  So much that there is enough for Clara and her Nutcracker, danced here by Christopher Hinton-Lewis, to grab handfuls to throw at each other and at the snowflakes in their gorgeous white and blue-edged dresses.

Of the Act II divertissements I particularly enjoyed the sensuous Arabian dance and the French ballet, danced to the music usually used for the Dance of the Mirlitons.  I thought some of flowers in the Waltz of the Flowers looked a little unsteady, but then Amemori and Takahashi gave us a faultless grand pas de deux with some really solid turns and lifts to round things off, before Clara found herself back in the arms of her father.

I’m sure there will be those who wonder why Northern Ballet Theatre needed a “Nutcracker”.  After all, it already has a hugely successful seasonal ballet in Massimo Morricone’s version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.  It could even be argued that by staging a classic so traditionally he is going against the company’s ethos, although I think not.  What Nixon has done is given us another strong and nicely constructed story, with characters who really seem to have personality.  At the same time, by making it very classical, he has challenged his own dancers.  A challenge to which, on the whole, they rose excellently.

While the setting is in many ways timeless, it is perhaps a little odd for the programme to specifically state that the ballet is set in the early 1800s.  That does leave Nixon open to accusations of historical inaccuracy, not least the presence of a Christmas tree, not introduced until later in the century, and of three-wheeled children’s scooters, invented in Germany around 1820 but not seen in Britain until much later, and in some of the costuming.  But to be honest, this is nitpicking and doesn’t really matter.

“The Nutcracker” is important for companies in many ways, not least financially.  At last, Nixon has given Northern Ballet Theatre a “Nutcracker” of its own, and it is certainly one that ticks all the right boxes.  What really makes it, however, are all his little touches, from the way each character at the party seems to have their own personality and the real-life excitement and wonder of the children, to the way Clara and the Nutcracker look genuinely happy and enthralled at all of the events in Act II.  The best of all comes right at the end.  Clara has just been explaining her dream adventure to her father and is being led back to bed, when Drosselmeyer appears at the door and hands her the Nutcracker doll.  She takes it and turns to go when, unknown to her, the Nutcracker appears behind him and blows her one final kiss.  Magic to the very last.

‘The Nutcracker’ continues on tour to Sheffield (Lyceum Theatre, 17-20 October), Canterbury (Marlowe Theatre, 6-10 November) and Leeds (Grand Theatre, 27 November-8 December).

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