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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'The Nutcracker'

by David Mead

November 25, 2011 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

There were celebrations a plenty at the Hippodrome on the opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Christmas season. It was not only the 21st anniversary of the first performance of what is regarded widely as the most magical and sumptuous “Nutcracker” of them all, but the following evening would see its 400th performance. On top of that, in the audience and celebrating his 85th birthday was creator Sir Peter Wright, who received a rousing pre-show rendition of “Happy Birthday”.

The party mood continued into what turned out to be a sparkling performance of Birmingham’s favourite ballet. The Act I house party is enchanting. The children were delightful, with Henry Brereton a very natural, and very expressive Fritz, who pulled all manner of faces and stomped his feet when he couldn’t get his way. Robert Parker was a handsome Drosselmeyer and David Morse was a comic delight as his usual understated but rather short-sighted Grandfather.

Wright places the late teenage Clara at the heart of his “Nutcracker” and Carol-Anne Millar was perfect as the young girl whose dream comes to life. She was nicely bubbly as she danced with Joseph Caley at the party, then in turn afraid, awestruck and most definitely in love with her Prince (Jamie Bond). The transformation scene in which Clara shrinks to the size of the toys under the tree remains as magical as ever, all conjured up by a now darker and slightly scary Drosselmeyer. Everyone focuses on the grand pas de deux at the end of Act II, but for the romantics among us, that which follows the battle wins hands down every time. Millar and Bond were the perfect match as the danced their love for each other.

It’s all a dream of course, something no-one sits by and watches, but that he or she is in for real. Wright emphasises the point by having Clara join in with most of the Act II dances, gently prompted by Drosselmeyer. It also neatly sidesteps the problem of having them appear as little more than a series of unconnected party pieces. The company all looked in top form here, although I wish something could be done about the Chinese dance which relies on terribly old-fashioned stereotypes and is decidedly unfunny. How about a Chinese folk-dance influenced replacement or even a version of a lion dance? The Act II highlight was undoubtedly Céline Gittens’ Rose Fairy, not so much a soft pastel coloured bloom as one that was vibrant, sparky and full of attack. The magic continued as Millar’s Clara transformed into Nao Sakuma’s Sugar Plum Fairy. Along with Bond she made the pas de deux look easy, if a little lacking in feeling. All dreams end though, and as the feast of dance reaches its climax Clara wakes up and her world returns to normal. Like us, though, she has her wonderful memories.

There seems to be more versions of the ballet around than ever this year, but this is a “Nutcracker” not to be missed.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome to Sunday, December 11 (see www.birminghamhippodrome.com). This year, London audiences can then catch it at the O2 from December 27-30 (see www.theo2.co.uk).

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