Nothing says Christmas like The Nutcracker, and as my local Odeon were live screening the Bolshoi version – and I’d never seen it before – I couldn’t resist. The screening started with glimpses of the Bolshoi theatre’s gorgeous interior, a brief text description of the company and an introduction to the ballet in three languages by the very talented presenter, Katya Novikova. Interestingly, she noted that Yuri Grigorovich – the choreographer and librettist for this production, which was originally premiered in 1966 – had stated that he wanted each note of Tchaikovsky’s score to be danced. I had already seen evidence of this attitude in his Swan Lake, to the detriment of the love story. Would The Nutcracker suffer a similar fate?
The curtain rises on a dark night sky, with snow-flecked dancers strutting and bustling across the stage to a Christmas Eve party. This gradual influx of characters makes for a slow start and establishes the comic tone of the first act. Once inside the house, we see child guests danced by the female corps de ballet, which only works when they aren’t placed next to the ‘adults’ for height comparison. Amongst this group are Marie (Clara in most versions of the story) and her brother. While the children dance with their new toys, the parents positively preen their way about the stage, all wigs, heels and billowing fabric. The whole thing seems like a pantomime. This impression only strengthens when Drosselmeyer appears. Andrei Merkuriev is a nimble, eerie masked figure, leaning on his cane with yellow-gloved hands and demonstrating no particular affection for Marie or any delight in amusing the gathered children with his tricks. Once his robotic Harlequin dolls and high-kicking Red Devils have danced their variations before the guests, Drosselmeyer produces Marie’s present. The nutcracker. Except… wait… it’s not a nutcracker. Instead, it’s a child-sized soldier doll with arms and legs bent at 90 degree angles. Not only is this doll incredibly creepy, it’s not a nutcracker. That is false advertising right there. Of course, Marie isn’t bothered by any of this and loves it/him straightaway.
Once the party has ended and we see the guests depart the way they came in, Marie returns to the darkened drawing room to curl up next to her nutcracker. Drosselmeyer appears to cast his spell, which results in the growth of the Christmas tree – a very modest effort compared to the Royal Ballet’s – and the emergence of the Mouse King and his sinister army. The ensuing battle scene with the ‘nutcracker’ and his soldiers could be more accurately described as a dance-off, but is entertaining nonetheless. (A side-note: everything magical that happens in this production is Drosselmeyer’s doing – even the summoning of the Mouse King – and yet he has no apparent motive for interfering. This is a massive flaw in the Bolshoi Nutcracker for me, and perhaps an example of Grigorovich’s choreography-centric approach causing problems in the story.)
When the nutcracker (thankfully) transforms into the Prince at the battle’s culmination, Marie declares her love for him straightaway. You can see why – Denis Rodkin, making his debut in the role, looks like a model and dances superbly (particularly in his Act II solo). The Waltz of the Snowflakes, which concludes the first act, is choreographed beautifully – but the white swimming caps worn by the dancers need to go. Ditto the cotton wool balls on sticks. Nothing about either of them evokes falling snow. Being the Bolshoi, there are bows at the end of Act I. In fact, bows probably add about ten minutes to the running time of the whole piece. I found this practice particularly annoying when I saw their Swan Lake, when – having successfully completed her fouettés – the principal dancing the Black Swan stopped mid-coda for a quick curtsey. It’s vain and a massive time waste.
Anyway! Act II begins with Marie and the Prince swinging on a giant pendulum above the stage, conveying their voyage to the magical Land of Sweets. Initially, this is portrayed as being among the branches of a Christmas tree hung with sweets – a clever twist – and before the character dances can begin, Grigorovich’s version sees the mice return for a second round. The Prince frightens them off with a string of impressive foutté turns and disappears through a trapdoor fighting the Mouse King. This reappearance of the evil forces is unconventional, but makes clever use of a reprise of the mice theme in Tchaikovsky’s music.
The subsequent character divertissements, set to some of the ballet’s most famous music, are here envisaged as duets – and they’re a mixed bunch. The Arabian/Coffee dance is stunning, with beautiful shapes and perfectly controlled holds. The Spanish/Chocolate dance is positively frenetic, with out of time turns and jumps. The customary Dance of the Reed Flutes is transformed into another duet, performed by characters all in white with a wooden lamb on wheels in tow. (I have no idea either.) The Russian and Chinese dances are nothing out of the ordinary. Overall, Grigorovich’s decision to turn all of these variations into a string of duets ultimately leaches variety and comic potential out of the sequence.
But then comes the Waltz of the Flowers, a sweeping, traditional set piece that takes this Nutcracker up a notch. The corps de ballet glide across the stage in floating pink romantic tutus, leaning into deep penchée arabesques and springing into leaps, perfectly in unison the whole time. This is classical ballet at its finest, exactly what I’d expect from a Tchaikovsky piece, and is certainly the highlight of the production for me. One big set piece follows another, with the Sugar Plum Fairy’s pas de deux next. Only in Grigorovich’s version, there is no Sugar Plum, and the duet is instead danced by Marie – now in a classical white tutu – and the Prince. Their adagio section is disappointing – there are a few difficult lifts, but the choreography is sparse and the involvement of the corps hinders any sense of a building relationship. Which arguably is important, as the final waltz in the Land of Sweets sees the Prince and a veiled Marie stand together under the Christmas tree like a prospective bride and groom.
But as the waltz dissolves into Tchaikovsky’s quiet apotheosis, Marie awakes in the drawing room. For some reason Drosselmeyer, Marie’s parents and the hideous ‘nutcracker’ doll are all around her, preventing any kind of poignant realisation. Instead, Marie is surprisingly okay with the revelation that her magical adventures and blossoming romance were all a dream… It’s not a dream I’d particularly want to have though. All I want for Christmas (from a ballet) is spectacle, sparkle and real heart – and for me this Nutcracker just doesn’t deliver.