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.
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