A week ago I went to the Liverpool Empire for the first time to see English National Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker. I’ve watched and adored Peter Wright’s version (danced by the Royal Ballet) for years, and I thought it was about time I branched out and saw a different production. The Liverpool Empire is a gorgeous theatre and I can highly recommend the view from the rear stalls. My seat cost just £26.50 and the view was fantastic!
The ballet begins with an Edwardian era Christmas party at the house of Clara and her brother Freddie. It’s a gentle, charming act full of ice skaters, young dancers, beautiful period costumes and light comic touches – when the presents are given out, the troublesome boys run through the room with their drums and trumpets, scattering the peacefully playing girls. It’s good to see the ENB combatting gender stereotypes though, as the girls get a variety of toys including dolls, teddies, tin soldiers and a hot air balloon.
This section never boasts much exciting dance content, but it is important for laying the groundwork of the story. Drosselmeyer gives Clara her nutcracker, and she also meets and develops a crush on his handsome nephew (Cesar Corrales). This sets up the coming of age narrative, which sees Clara dreaming of herself as a grown up and eventually dancing with the Nephew. Once midnight has struck, the impressively confident and talented young Amy Jones makes way for her adult counterpart, Alina Cojocaru.
Cojocaru dances “adult” Clara with a childlike giddiness, covering her face in shyness and showing giddy excitement when the hot air balloon appears to whisk her away. But Clara can’t escape until the Mouse King and his cronies have been defeated – a long and entertaining battle scene sees her powdering the cannons (which turn out to be comically ineffectual) and grabbing the King’s tail when he is fighting the now lifesize Nutcracker. The Mouse King has magic of his own in this production, and it is he who causes the Christmas tree to grow (though it is nowhere near as impressive as Covent Garden’s enormous offering).
Act II sees Clara, Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker (who, once revealed, turns out to be the Nephew) in their hot air balloon touch down not in a colourful Land of Sweets, but in a slightly less exciting magical land. After a short reprise of the conflict with the mice, Drosselmeyer conjures up a stage-within-a-stage for the series of Sweet divertissements. (Continuing the Wonderland/Oz effect, this theatre is a lifesize version of the puppet show that appears to entertain the party guests in Act I).
Each of the character dances are very strong: the Spanish trio are fabulously flamboyant, the Chinese dance avoids caricatured stereotypes, and a sexy Arabian dance sees a harem of exotic ladies weaving around a bare-chested male dancer. The Dance of the Mirlitons is cleverly reimagined as a duet for Drosselmeyer and an enchanting Alison McWhinney.
But it’s the big set pieces in Act II that really get my attention. The Waltz of the Flowers is an exquisite tribute to Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, with detailed, musical interplay between the corps de ballet and two leading pairs (Madison Keesler, Ken Saruhashi, Anjuli Hudson and Barry Drummond). The earlier Waltz of the Snowflakes is also a delight, full of glittery jete-ing snowflakes.
Act II continues to build and climaxes with an excellent pas de deux. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince in this production. Instead, Clara and the Nephew return to the stage in sparkling classical costume, and – having danced solidly through Act and II with only the divertissements for a break – they dance the challenging Sugar Plum pas de deux. Cojocaru and Corrales put in a stunning performance of the adagio – complete with an eye-watering amount of lifts – that makes my heart race and my eyes brim. Corrales’ athletic leaps, turns and revoltades are something to behold, and Cojocaru’s perfect performance of the famous solo is truly the stuff of Clara’s dreams (and mine).
Clara wakes in her room, once again a child, and I had to pinch myself at the end too. Seeing a dancer like Cojocaru in one of the most legendary classical roles was an incredible privilege. The whole production is a treat, particularly Act II, and even if it doesn’t quite replace the Royal Ballet’s version in my heart, it’s still packed with lovely choreography, fun characterisation and the spirit of Christmas.
This is my last post of the year folks, so I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and a very Happy New Year. See you in 2017!