The Nutcracker Now
It strikes us that despite its ever-growing popularity, The Nutcracker presents something of a conundrum. As last year, all the major ballet companies in the UK are performing runs of The Nutcracker, which stretch from the end of November into the new year. Of the three Tchaikovsky ballets Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895), The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), and The Nutcracker (Ivanov, 1892), with their magnificent scores, the Christmas ballet is the work with the least dramatic coherence and the most varied choreography from production to production. The result of this is that the identity of the work relies predominantly on the musical score, made famous by the suite of numbers performed in the concert hall, used for Disney’s 1940 Fantasia and numerous television adverts, and perhaps on a few key figures and events, such as Drosselmeyer, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the battle between the Toy Soldiers and Mice, and the growing Christmas Tree.
One problem for lovers of narrative ballet is that we are accustomed to works that offer the ballerina a central role combining complexity and variety in choreography, and development and contrast in characterisation. Just think of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841), Swan Lake, Onegin (Cranko, 1965), and Manon (MacMillan, 1974), to name but a few examples. In fact, the original production of The Nutcracker was criticised for including “only one classical pastor the ballerina, and this near the end of the second act” (Wiley 199). Yes, it’s a long time to wait, if you have booked a ticket specifically to see a beloved ballerina dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy …
In the eyes of some audience members this situation is undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that the main character, Clara, is a child, and Act I is populated by children. Dick Godfrey highlighted this issue in his review of Scottish Ballet’s performance last year, a revival of Peter Darrell’s 1973 production after over forty years: “Darrell’s bold – and in many ways admirable – decision to cast children in the roles of the children instead of the more commonly found young professionals limits the amount of dance he offers”. The Royal Ballet production addresses this dilemma by casting a young-looking company member as Clara. This can be seen in recordings on DVD, for example with Miyako Yoshida as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Alina Cojocaru as Clara in 2001, and Lauren Cuthbertson and Francesca Hayward in the same roles in 2016. And in truth the opportunity to see a budding star of the calibre of Cojocaru or Hayward can imbue the performance with a wonderful sense of excitement.
In English National Ballet’s current production staged by Wayne Eagling in 2010 the child Clara dreams of growing up and falling in love, and consequently dances the grand pas de deux that concludes the ballet. In this case we can gain an enormous amount of pleasure from seeing a ballerina capable of expressing both Clara’s teenage youthfulness and the grandeur required of the grand pas de deux. Describing Tamara Rojo’s performance at the end of Act I Graham Watts writes: “it is astonishing how Rojo peels away the years to become an excited, wide-eyed teenager on stage”. In contrast, by the end of Act II, “her experience shows in the way that she deploys contrast, from the soft-backed swoop of her promenades with Berlanga in their opening duet to the steely verticality of her triple fouettés in the coda” (Jennings).
At the start of December we saw Northern Ballet perform their production in Woking. One of the delightful features of the performance was the fact that the children were notably of different heights, creating a vivid sense of a family gathering in the first act. The production is similar to the Royal Ballet’s in that Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy are danced by two different performers, but the two acts are securely connected not only through the figure of Clara, but through the resemblance between the characters of her life in Act I and her dream in Act II, for example between her elder sister and the Sugar Plum Fairy, both performed by the same dancer. However, this in no way makes the libretto complex, and David Nixon, Artistic Director and creator of this production, is keen to emphasise his desire “not to change the story drastically or to bring a psychological overtone. I wanted it to be festive and joyous … It is based on a dark story, but … I kept my version simple and childlike” (qtd. in Monahan 12).
The Nutcracker Then
If you think of The Nutcracker more as family entertainment than as high art, you might think it odd to question the practice of including child dancers as principal characters in the ballet, and you might be puzzled or even perplexed by the decision to bring greater depth to the work with a “psychological overtone”. Yet there have been two British productions that have notably aimed to give the ballet more gravitas, both in part by aligning the narrative more closely to E.T.A Hoffmann’s 1816 Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the story that inspired the ballet’s original libretto. These were Rudolf Nureyev’s version, performed by the Royal Ballet from 1968 into the early 1980s, and the version created by Peter Schaufuss for London Festival Ballet in 1986, which remained in the repertoire until 1992.
Nureyev is known for his eagerness to expand male roles, having choreographed additional solos for the male protagonist in The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake, for example, and changing the end of Swan Lake to highlight the fate of Siegfried in preference for either Odette or the love between Odette and Siegfried. Therefore, Nureyev’s decision to combine the role of Clara’s Godfather Herr Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince could simply be considered as a way of creating a role equal in substance to that of the ballerina. But the fact that Drosselmeyer, with his eccentric mannerisms, is so very different from the Nutcracker Prince offers an arguably greater challenge to the male protagonist than to the ballerina, who portrays Clara maturing into a young woman. For the dancer it affords the opportunity to bring out different facets of the old magician and his relationship with his Goddaughter; for the audience it adds an interesting dramatic layering and the rare chance to see male dancer in a dual role Apart from Nureyev himself, notable exponents of the role were Anthony Dowell and David Wall, both of whom we discussed in our Male Dancers Now & Then post. On the other hand, historian and critic Jack Anderson has criticised Nureyev’s production quite bluntly for its sombre atmosphere, its Freudian overtones and its pervasive “images of cruelty” (149).
With its Gingerbread Men and Lemonade Sea, Peter Schaufuss’ 1986 production was not pervaded by the same dark atmosphere, but through both including added detail from Hoffmann’s story and introducing Tchaikovsky and his family into the libretto, the narrative became quite complicated and perhaps even burdened with additional elements. This included a toy theatre where the Tale of the Nut “Krakatuk” was played out, the illness of Tanya, (the character usually known as Clara, and in this version also Tchaikovsky’s niece), and a prologue with Tchaikovsky working on the Nutcracker score, learning of the death of his beloved sister Sasha, and reminiscing about a past Christmas spent at her family home. The premise for the production was Schaufuss’ idea that “Tchaikovsky may have seen himself as the central figure, Drosselmeyer” (Clarke 400), and indeed one of the joys of these performances was watching Christopher Bruce as the Tchaikovsky/Drosselmeyer figure. The programme notes included a Tchaikovsky family tree to clarify the various familial relationships. We could argue that, as with Nureyev’s version, this approach helped to bring more substance to the ballet, giving it more gravitas as an art work, and perhaps making it seem more historically and artistically significant.
Share your thoughts!
In a brilliant review of the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker this year Observer critic Luke Jennings noted that the only thing lacking in the “dreamlike perfection” of the production is the sense of melancholy so integral to Tchaikovsky’s score. Similarly, film critic Ryan Gilbey criticises Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms for “failing to acknowledge the darker side of Christmas”.
So how do you prefer your Nutcracker? How important is the ballerina role to you? Are you interested in producers incorporating the “darker side of Christmas”? Is dramatic cogency important to you? Are you keen to see a romantic plot? Are you more in favour of a Nutcracker with lots of children and a simple clear storyline?
We’d love to know what you think!
© British Ballet Now and Then
Anderson, Jack. The Nutcracker Ballet. Bison Books, 1979.
Clarke, Mary. “The Nutcracker Season”. Dancing Times, vol. 77, no. 917, pp. 400-01.
Gilbey, Ryan. “No wonder Disney’s Nutcracker is a flop – festive films thrive on despair”. The Guardian, 8 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/dec/08/nutcracker-christmas-films-need-darkness-as-well-light. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.
Godfrey, Dick. “Scottish Ballet’s revival of Peter Darrell’s Nutcracker restores the famous sparkle”. ChronicleLive, 2 Feb. 2018, http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/theatre-news/scottish-ballets-revival-peter-darrells-14232709. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.
Jennings Luke. “The Nutcracker – review”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/23/nutcracker-english-national-tamara-rojo. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.
—. “The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”. The Guardian, 9 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/09/the-nutcracker-royal-ballet-review-nunez-muntagirov-osullivan-sambe. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.
Monahan, Mark. “An Awfully Big Adventure”. The Nutcracker, Winter 2018, New Victoria Theatre, pp. 12-13.
The Nutcracker. Choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, performance by Alina Cojocaru, Miyako Yoshida and Royal Ballet. 2001, Opus Arte, 2001.
The Nutcracker. Choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, performance by Francesca Hayward, Lauren Cuthbertson, and Royal Ballet. 2016, Opus Arte, 2017.
Watts, Graham. “Review: English National Ballet – The Nutcracker- London Coliseum”. londondance.com, 15 Dec. 2014, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/english-national-ballet-the-nutcracker-2014/.. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.
Wiley, Roland John. Tchaikovsky’s Ballets. Clarendon Press, 1985.
2 thoughts on “The Nutcracker Now & Then”
I love this fascinating overview of all the different Nutcracker interpretations! It makes me want to go out and watch them all again, as clearly, each production brings something different to the experience.
I’ve never thought about the Nutcracker score containing intrinsic melancholy or that the ballet should portray the darker side of Christmas. I’m wondering exactly what the darker side of Christmas is in the Nutcracker?
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Our understanding of the darker side of Christmas is simply the darker side of life, but just as feelings of joy are intensified at Christmas, so are feelings of grief, sorrow, loneliness and poverty more keenly felt. In our opinion, Luke encapsulates it is his sentence “For every Clara opening her presents beneath the Christmas tree, there’s a Little Match Girl freezing to death in the street outside”.