Christmas may be over, but no-one told Moscow City Ballet as they bring their lively, colourful production of The Nutcracker to the stage at The Palace.
It begins with a Christmas Eve party at the house of Clara, the central character (Prima Ballerina Yulia Zhuravleva). Costumes are rich and vividly coloured but the choreography – mostly for ensemble dances – is kept simple. Unlike some Nutcracker productions, there are no ballet school students in the cast, so the children’s parts are danced by female members of the corps. The famous march is given a new spin with the introduction of Father Christmas, whose gifts send the “children” into a frenzy of excitement – including Clara, who receives a small wooden nutcracker doll. Father Christmas soon reveals himself to be Drosselmeyer, Clara’s magical and eccentric godfather (Talgat Kozhabaev).
The portrayal of Drosselmeyer is one of the most interesting things about Moscow City Ballet’s production. Firstly, his age is unclear. Principal dancer Kozhabaev is not made up to look old – his “transformation into a young man” described by the synopsis of Act II is not evident as he looks exactly the same, bar a change of costume. Even without a substantial age gap, Drosselmeyer’s relationship with Clara is a vaguely disturbing one. Having caused the Nutcracker Prince (Andrei Zhuravlev) to come to life, Drosselmeyer soon becomes jealous of the love his goddaughter lavishes on the doll. This jealousy motivates him to cast the spell that bewitches Clara later that night, leading to the events of Act II. This mental and emotional manipulation is communicated physically in a disturbing section worthy of choreographer Kenneth Macmillan, where Drosselmeyer forces Clara into lifts and turns, thwarting each of her attempts to escape him.
Act I concludes with the Waltz of the Snowflakes, danced by the female corps de ballet clad in icy blue tutus. Victor Smirnov-Golovanov’s choreography after Petipa is extremely musical throughout, but it shines particularly here and in the Waltz of the Flowers. Unfortunately, the illusion of softly falling snow is somewhat marred by the loud machines blowing fake snow down onto the stalls from above.
While Act I is comparable to pantomime for its comedy, colour and vivid characters, Act II is a pure classical ballet showpiece. The traditional Land of Sweets is replaced by an enchanted garden presided over by a Flower Fairy – the elegant Liliya Orekhova, whose fouetté and attitude turns are sparklingly precise. The character dances are real crowd-pleasers – the sharp, synchronised Spanish Dance and endless, energetic leaps of the Chinese Dance soloists are particular highlights. The usual Dance of the Reed Flutes is given to Drosselmeyer as a solo, but the music demands light, delicate footwork that isn’t suitable for a male soloist. Throughout the Act II variations, the corps de ballet stand either side of the stage in two straight lines, framing the dancing and filling the space. This production is well staged in general to create the illusion of watching a much larger company.
Having danced a pas de trois in one final bid for Clara’s affection, Drosselmeyer must concede to the Nutcracker Prince and allow the lovers to dance together. Packed with pirouettes, lifts, fish dives and every trick in the classical ballet book, it’s a challenging pas de deux but the two principals manage to pull it off to loud applause.
Unfortunately for Clara, the dream of her godfather’s making melts away and she returns to her parent’s house with only the wooden nutcracker doll as a reminder of her experiences. There’s no danger of forgetting this production however, as the Moscow City Ballet’s Nutcracker is an entertaining adaptation of a classic that sticks to tradition whilst weaving in some new touches of its own.