The Nutcracker Now & Then

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 deus 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

References

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.

The Nutcracker Now & Then

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

The Nutcracker Now

As is now the tradition, there is plenty of opportunity to see The Nutcracker this Christmas.

The Royal Ballet’s season at the Royal Opera House runs from December 5th December till January 10th, while Birmingham Royal Ballet is performing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 24th November to 13th December and then just before the new year at the Royal Albert Hall with Simon Callow as the voice of Clara’s magician Godfather Drosselmeyer.  English National Ballet begins its long-established annual Nutcracker season in Southampton at the end of November, followed by over a month at the London Coliseum. And through most of December and January Scottish Ballet is touring the ballet in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Newcastle.

If you’re not able to get a ticket for one of these live performances, or if you prefer the cinema, you might be able to catch the live screening of the Royal Ballet on December 5th.

One of the ballerinas dancing the two different roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy with the Royal Ballet is Francesca Hayward.  Last year she featured in a documentary broadcast on national television on Christmas Day itself: Dancing the Nutcracker – Inside the Royal Ballet.  This also marked her debut in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  As well as showing her dancing in rehearsal and on the stage, it depicted her at home with her grandparents in Sussex, where the story of her first encounter with a classical ballet – a video of The Nutcracker – was recounted with warmth and humour.  Meanwhile, at ENB Francesca Velicu, who gained acclaim earlier this year in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, makes her company debut in the dual ballerina role of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

So popular has the ballet become, that Northern Ballet theatre are already advertising David Nixon’s version scheduled to tour in November and December 2018.

The Nutcracker Then

So how did a ballet created for the Imperial Russian Court in 1892 become a British tradition of family Christmas entertainment?

Well, The Nutcracker has a long and varied history in this country.

The first important British production was staged on January 30th 1934 by the Vic-Wells Ballet, which was to become the Royal Ballet 22 years later. This was the first complete Nutcracker to be staged in Western Europe, 42 years after the premiere in Saint Petersburg.  Alicia Markova and Stanley Judson were the stars of the ballet (Anderson 92-93), but Margot Fonteyn made her stage debut under her original name of Peggy Hookham as a Snowflake in the same production (93).  Only three years later the Company staged a new version with Fonteyn as the Sugar Plum Fairy, partnered by Robert Helpmann (93).

But the Vic-Wells was not the only company to stage the ballet in the 1930s, when British ballet was still in its infancy. Alicia Markova, the original British Sugar Plum Fairy, set up a company with Anton Dolin, and from 1935 to 1937 they showed excerpts from Act II as they toured the country (Anderson 96; Pritchard 69).

After spending some time abroad, Markova and Dolin returned to England and realised that in post-War Britain there was an increasing interest in ballet.  In 1950 they formed Festival Ballet (later London Festival Ballet, now English National Ballet) with a view to popularising ballet, making it affordable, and bringing it to the provinces as well as performing in London (Teveson 89, 93).  And this is where The Nutcracker really starts to take off in Britain.  In its very first season Festival Ballet already produced a full staging of the ballet and established the tradition of performing The Nutcracker every year, although the ballet wasn’t always performed in its entirety, and was shown at various points throughout the year. However, by the 1960s the tradition of a Christmas season of the ballet was well underway.  As Jane Pritchard puts it, the 1957 production by David Lichine, designed by Alexandre Benois “may be said to have established the ballet as a popular Christmas treat in Britain” (70-71).

ENB now performs its annual Nutcracker season at the London Coliseum.  Although we think of it as an opera house, originally the Coliseum was a variety theatre.  Festival Ballet’s first production was at the Stoll Theatre on Kingsway, which was once a cinema, as was the New Victoria Theatre, another venue for this Company’s Nutcracker, and the theatre where the musical Wicked is currently running.  For many years too the annual Nutcracker was performed in The Royal Festival Hall, a venue that was conceived as democratic, relaxed and welcoming (Open University).  So it’s interesting that the tradition of the ballet’s annual runs became established through regular performances in venues connected to enjoyment and family entertainment as much as to high art and exclusivity. 

In 1976 Ronald Hynd’s production of The Nutcracker was broadcast by the BBC, performed by London Festival Ballet, led by Eva Evdokimova and Peter Breuer.  By this time Scottish Ballet also had its own version by Peter Darrell, the founder of the Company.  Staged for the first time in 1973, this ballet was created only four years after the establishment of the Company, originally named Scottish Theatre Ballet. Initially Act II was performed as part of a triple bill earlier in 1973, and then the full ballet was staged at Christmas, starting a tradition of annual Christmas performances for the Company (Anderson 150).  So this is a similar pattern to the one established by Festival Ballet in the 1950s and ’60s. The Peter Darrell production was revived three years ago and is in fact the very same production that is being toured this season in Scotland and Newcastle.  

 

In our opinion The Nutcracker was integral to the building of an audience for ballet in Britain, an audience that spanned class and age. True to its story, the ballet has become associated with Christmas festivities, family and friends.  And promising young dancers can be given a chance to tackle a ballerina role in the presence of an audience that is perhaps less critical than the usual audience for classical ballet.

 

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … we will be looking at Kenneth MacMillan’s choral works, two of which are being performed in the new year by English National Ballet and Northern Ballet Theatre.

References

Anderson, Jack. The Nutcracker Ballet. Bison Books, 1979.

Anderson, Robin. “The Scottish Ballet”. 20th Century Dance in Britain, edited by Joan W. White. Dance Books, 1985, pp. 143-67.

Dancing the Nutcracker – Inside the Royal Ballet, directed by Hugo Macgregor, Oxford Film and Television for British Broadcasting Corporation, 25 Dec. 2016.

The Open University. “Royal Festival Hall”, OpenLearn, 26 Nov. 2001. Accessed 18 Nov. 2017.

Pritchard, Jane. “Archives of the Dance (18): English National Ballet Archive”, Dance Research, vol. 18, no. 1, 2000, pp. 68-91.

Teveson, Claire. “London Festival Ballet”. 20th Century Dance in Britain, edited by Joan W. White. Dance Books, 1985, pp. 87-110.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2017