Nøddeknækkeren (The Nutcracker)
The Royal Danish Ballet
Kongelige Theatre, Copenhagen
18th, 19th and 20th (eve) December 2008
The Nutcracker comes in many forms, but generally speaking there are two main categories: a danced version (insofar as the story line allows) or an entertainment for the children at Christmas. The Royal Danish Ballet’s current version is aimed emphatically towards the kids, though the mirror sets of the second act gave the ballet a look of sophistication that you don’t normally get with Nutcrackers.
In this production the main gimmick, if I may call it that, is two Drosselmeyers, one acting (and speaking occasionally) and one dancing, although in total I counted four as a Drosselmeyer in drag is wheeled on (literally) to play the harp prior to the Waltz of the Flowers and Drosselmeyer’s nephew actually looks like a scaled down version of his uncle(s) in an identical ringmaster’s costume of black and gold satin, though without the distinctive long silver wigs that the older Drosselmeyers wear. There are also two Sugar Plum Fairies; an older one in a fat suit and a younger one who dances the Waltz of The Flowers, she is actually called the Flower Fairy but wears an identical red wig and brilliant pink tutu as the older Sugar Plum Fairy: neither dancer dances the traditional solo for the Sugar Plum Fairy though. This duality puzzled me as there were no references to the passing of time, nor did the two Drosselmeyers or the two Fairies have markedly different personalities: from my point of view just one of each would have done nicely. This duality of course stretches to the production itself as it is credited to Kenneth Greve and Peter Langdal with the former responsible for the choreography and Langdal for just about everything else.
Clara is danced by a child and as in other versions she dreams of becoming a ballerina; her family are part of a theatrical troop seen as a rather disorganized bunch during the overture. When we progress to the party scene the richness of Langdal’s staging emerges with a number of entertaining vignettes from the very individual guests, such as the guy sitting in the corner getting quietly drunk and another finding it all too much who eventually finds a chair to fall asleep in. The ideas come thick and fast with my favourite being the arrival of a pair of Russian Cossacks from inside a giant ‘matryoshka’ doll.
The battle of the rats and toy soldiers is followed by Clara discovering Drosselmeyer’s nephew as the triumphant Nutcracker, followed by the two children enjoying a pillow fight, which I thought rather a waste of that beautiful transformation scene music. However on the evening I found myself surrounded by a bunch of children, the happy laughter indicated that they liked this best of all. I bow to their superior taste because as I’ve mentioned above, they are the target audience.
The Snowflakes are terrific but malicious and malign, freezing Drosselmeyer’s nephew inside a block of ice and hunting down Clara: when they throw snow at her it isn’t a playful gesture but an attempt to freeze Clara too, but she escapes when Drosselmeyer arrives in a submarine with a fur coat to wrap her in before whisking her away in a ballon. I imagine that as a Dane, Kenneth Greve can’t disassociate a Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen’s story and therefore is unable to conceive as the character as anything other than malevolent, but she and the snowflakes clearly inspired him as to my mind this is the best passage of choreography in the entire ballet.
Act two begins with the Cossacks (now four) freeing Drosselmeyer’s nephew from the ice before the string of entertainments that begin with fat Sugar Plum teaching a collection of equally fat children (also in fat suits, I hasten to add) a little barre work. The Spaniards are a witty nod to that balletic warhorse Don Q. with three of the girls actually named as ‘Kitri Damer’ all kitted out in black tutus and fans joined by three more conventional Spanish girls accompanied by a sole sexy male (Constantine Baecher or Cedric Lambrette). The frequently tedious Arab Dance was a little more spicy than usual, especially when danced by Tina Højlund, with four bare-chested males, their faces all but obscured by their turbans. This number had an effective ending with the lady vanishing amid a column of flame: the trap door operators were kept busy all evening, by the way.
Weakest of the Divertissements was the Chinese dance, chock full of Chinese stereotypes such as kung fu, nunchakus and what is it the Chinese do? Ah, yes, they ride bikes. So the stage is filled with a profusion of cyclists, first a couple of admittedly cute kids and then the adults. Though to my mind it’s not just the Chinese that make a fetish of riding bikes, Copenhagen is full of the damn things, reminding me of what people living in glass house shouldn’t do.
Then comes that very unfamiliar Nutcracker character The Rabbit. He is bright yellow and huge and somewhere underneath all that fake fur is young Charlie Andersen atop those springy metal stilt things that gives him the kind of elevation beyond that of mortals; he bounces around a lot and waves to the audience.
For the pas de deux Clara and Drosselmeyer’s nephew are transformed into adult dancers; I saw just two casts though as the company was in the midst of a spate of injuries. Diana Cuni and Thomas Lund make a perfectly matched pair and danced impressively but Greve’s choreography achieved what I thought would be impossible for this couple by actually making them look clumsy by requiring Lund at one point to squat down whilst Cuni swings her leg over his head. This is a pas de deux devoid of any ‘flow’, an example of difficulty for the sake of difficulty and had I not known the choreography was indeed by Greve, I would have sworn it to be the work of Rudolf Nureyev.
The second couple I saw was Kizzy Howard and Ulrik Birkkjær: I got quite excited about seeing this cast as Ms Howard is English and the sight of any British dancer in a leading role anywhere is now (sadly) something of a rarity. The choreography suited this slightly taller pair little better, but they made the most of it and I was happy to note that Kizzy Howard retains that mixture of softness and precision that used to be so much the hallmark of the English school. Birkkjær was a sympathetic partner and danced his solo well; both were slightly better and seemed more relaxed at the second performance I saw them give.
The two leading characters are of course Clara and Drosselmeyer’s nephew, danced by children from the RDB School; I saw two pairs and unsurprisingly the older couple gave more polished performances. Of course both sets of children are already seasoned performers as opportunities to appear on stage are frequent for the young Danish pupils but little Tobias Praetorius, the younger of the two boys possessed an acting ability way beyond his years and a stage presence that some adult dancers might envy
I saw three dancing Drosselmeyers; Morton Eggert, Mogens Boesen and Fernando Moro. Each brought a distinct personality to the role, but it was the very enigmatic, almost fey, characterization by Eggert that struck me the most, very much a figure of enchantment, a supernatural being creating an aura of mystery each time he appeared on stage. Of the two older Drosselmeyers there was little to choose between actor Morten Eisner and company member Poul-Erik Hesselkilde as it is mainly a mined role and the speaking is minimal, both played the part in a mischievous fashion finding the role of fixer for the kids for more fun than hanging out with those boring adults.
To sum up, it wasn’t my kind of production as there simply wasn’t enough dancing for my taste, but it is clearly proving popular as the theatre was packed at every performance and Nutcracker is clearly as much a Christmas tradition in Denmark as elsewhere and I’m sure the kids went home happy even if the balletomanes probably didn’t.