Edinburgh Festival Theatre
January 6, 2004 7:30pm
Sugar Plums and fake snow be gone With blustery winds howling across the Edinburgh streets, the Scottish Ballet blew away any preconceptions about the ‘Nutcracker’. Ashley Page’s production, which debuted last holiday season, owes more to the dark and moody original story by ETA Hoffman than the sugary sweet versions that invade most stages in December. ‘Nutcracker’ is a production that is as sultry, carefree and naughty as the flapper era of the early 1930s in which it is set. A hodgepodge of color, dance styles and storylines, it’s a ballet, which, though it doesn’t always hang together, is at times delightfully innovative and humorously wicked!
The story begins in Antony McDonald’s rendition of 1930s Berlin, where the sleek, fashionable Stahlbaums and their three children are hosting a Christmas party. Already in this first scene the flaws and strengths of Page’s production begin to reveal themselves. The corps dancers in the child roles throw themselves with abandon into the clever, rough and tumble choreography, but casting adults as children is not often entirely successful, and here the male dancers look out of place in the knee length shorts and sailor suits. It was thus a delight to see guest dancer Monica Zamora slide so naturally into the role of Clara, utterly believable as a girl on the cusp of adolescence.
The adults dance kick up their heels in slightly drunken dance, amusing but like other sections, somewhat under-choreographed. Eve Mutso’s sultry Frau Stahlbaum certainly didn’t look like a mother of three and clearly was not letting motherhood interfere with her social life. Glaring in the background was one of Page’s most delightful characters, the sinister governess who becomes the evil Dame Mouserink. As both the black clad governess and the big-eared sinister mouse queen, Diana Loosemore oozed sensuality and evilness. The play performed during the party reveals that Mouserink charmed the Princess Pirlipat to make her look hideous, and charm that is reversed by the noble nutcracker. The giant, sinister mouse head that peers into the window whenever she makes an entrance hints at the governess’ true nature.
The opening party also introduces us to Herr Drosselmeyer, a role seemingly tailor-made for Scottish Ballet stalwart Jarko Lehmus. This Drosselmeyer is the glue that holds the story together, for he guides his goddaughter through both the traditional Nutcracker kingdoms and battles and the darker story of Princess Pirlipat and the evil Dame Mouserink. Sly, darkly sexy and mysterious, Lehmus is a sensational Drosselmeyer, and the roles allows him to demonstrate the earthy flow that gives his dancing such power. It is only the blue velvet suit and bleach blond mop top that don’t make sense with the character –from a distance it makes him look more Austin Powers than Mysterious God Father.
The battle scene is most notable for Michelle May’s richly colored soldier costumes, modeled after uniforms from WWI and early wars. The action is appropriately chaotic, but with no growing tree, expanding windows or ballooning bed, the transition from normal house to outsized dreamland is confusing and the glorious crescendos in Tschaikovsky’s score seem woefully underused. Eventually it becomes clear that the giant pot being used as a fort is the Christmas tree pot. Clara is saved by her Nutcracker Prince and then buffeted by winds bearing snowflakes. Only here there are two bad snowflakes, dancing in bare feet in modern style as well as the usual tutu and pointe shoe clad snowflakes. Page’s choreography is energetic and breezy, the snowflake corps fluttering around on point, just as real snowflakes dart around as they hang in the eddies and then are whipped up by the gusts of wind. The corps, many of whom were hired for this production, danced with a pleasing freshness.
After seeing the full story of Princess Pirlipat played out and watching Clara rescue her Nutcracker Prince for good, we are treated to the traditional divertissements. Only these sweets have a spicy edge, and unlike most productions where the world of the sweets is a fantasyland, here it’s not far from the Stahlbaum home. The festive dancers are the party guests, thinly disguised and the stage is arrayed under a giant version of the Stahlbaum fireplace. Clara’s journey, it seems, is not so fantastical and not so far from home.
By far, the highlight of the act was Eva Mutso/Frau Stahlbaum’s scorchingly sultry Arabian dance. Partnered flawlessly by Lehmus, Hubert Essakow and Mark Kimmet, Mutso flavored her dancing with sinuous curves and high, arching extensions. It was a shame however that the very audible creaking and rustling from the men’s’ costumes sometimes broke the sultry feeling, invading the Arabian fantasy.
The Waltz of the Flowers received a festive and sassy performance from the corps, even if six flowers and two cavaliers don’t really fill the stage or capture the power of the music. These flowers were deep red, roses perhaps or even poppies – flowers with attitude. Handsome in their tuxedos, Oliver Rydout and Cristo Vivancos impressed greatly in their cavalier roles, sometimes stealing the show from their flowered females. Soon Ja Lee’s extensions are stunning, but often seem a bit uncontrolled and her pink tights and pastel costume seemed very out of place, a carnation among roses.
Spanish received a rousing performance from Martina Forioso and Adam Blyde, and the French maids with their china chamber pots were a great success in the French variation but the Russian, Chinese suffered from the same lack of actual dancing as sections of the first act. Page is assembling a company of increasingly able dancers, but yet there are times when there simply isn’t much for them to do.
The closing grand pas de deux was solidly danced by Monica Zamora and Erik Cavallari, but lacked a special sparkle. The traditional choreography is recognizable, but again the actual dancing doesn’t always live up to the soaring score. Zamora was impressive, whipping of both powerful fouettes and delicate pique turns, but Erik Cavallari seemed overmatched physically. The gasp inducing runs to a bounce shoulder lifts were down slowly and the partnering did not always appear smooth – perhaps this is Zamora’s first time dancing with Cavallari. Cavallari also was not at his best in his solos – he needed both more extension and snap in his jumps and especially in his series of cabrioles (brise voles?), needed to pay attention to pointing his underneath foot.
Decidedly non-traditional, sometimes delightful, sometimes confusing, but always entertaining – that is Ashley Page’s Nutcracker. One hopes that Page will continue to tinker with the choreography and costumes, and continue to improve this production.