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Which Nutcracker should you see this year?

Fans of The Nutcracker are spoilt rotten this year. But are there too many mice at the Coliseum?

    The Royal Ballet's chorus at the 'magical' production of The Nutcracker
    The Royal Ballet's chorus at the 'magical' production of The Nutcracker

    The Royal Ballet is marking Sir Peter Wright's  90th birthday with one of his stagings, made especially for the Royal Opera House. Just down the road, at the London Coliseum, the English National Ballet is performing its own Nutcracker, with choreography by Wayne Eagling, who was himself a principal with the Royal Ballet for many years. The Nutcracker has been at the heart of the ENB’s repertoire since the company was established more than 60 years ago. This current production is its tenth one, and sadly, it lacks the magic of the Royal Ballet’s 30-year-old, more traditional staging.

    It does, however, begin with a charming skating scene as the guests arrive for the party. You feel a real chill in the air as the dancers slip and slide across the stage very effectively. The children and doddery old people in the first act can be annoying, but that is a common fault with Nutcrackers in general and audiences are usually impatient for the transformation scene to begin.

    For the ENB, that’s where things start to go wrong. Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music should dictate the choreography. Eagling disregards the most enchanting moments of the score, so instead of watching the Christmas tree grow as the music swells, we are stuck with the fighting mice — and irritatingly, they still put in an appearance in the second act.

    One of the big decisions facing a director staging this famous ballet is whether to use a child as Clara, or opt for a young, fully trained dancer from the company. The ENB uses a child for the early dances, who runs off mid battle scene to be replaced by an adult Clara — in the performance I saw, she was danced by the exquisitely delicate ballerina Alina Cojocaru. This Clara later emerges as the Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s all a tad confusing.

    The Royal Ballet has Clara and the fairy as two separate roles — a better interpretation which makes more sense.

    The Royal Ballet sends Clara off to the Kingdom of Sweets in a sleigh, whereas a hot air balloon soars into the sky at the Coliseum. And yes, that darn Mouse King is clinging on to it.

    The Royal Ballet’s production, designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman, has a chocolate box prettiness about it. This Nutcracker shows the company at its best: look out for the exquisite Sarah Lamb, whose elegant line and sharp footwork make her always a pleasure to watch as the Sugar Plum Fairy. And if you catch Gary Avis as Drosselmeyer (the cast varies at all the performances), you will see this fine actor/dancer command the stage with a single look or gesture, combining magic and mystery.

    What the ENB’s Nutcracker lacks in magic, it makes up for in the dancing. Cojocaru is a light and airy Clara, and an imperious Sugar Plum Fairy. Cesar Corrales as the nephew/Nutcracker Prince soars and spins magnificently, playing with the tempo to the delight of the audience. Praise too, must go to the corps who dance the Waltz of the Snowflakes crisply (would that those wretched mice keep out of the scene) and turn the Waltz of the Flowers into a complete joy.

    It may be hard to choose which company to see. The Royal Ballet’s production has a sense of wonder and real sparkle, and while one can quibble with the English National Ballet’s uneven staging, the dancing is a real treat.

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