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Arts Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker

04th December 2013 10:06:55

Just before curtain up on the opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker, it was tweeted that "this marks the start of Christmas, not the John Lewis ad." How refreshingly true, for if the festive season is supposed to encourage tradition and time enjoyed together with friends and family, then why would we want to be transfixed by our television screen? As the company prepare for 23 performances of the Christmas classic, Beth Baker-Wyse discovers how theatre really is the gift that gives back.

Arriving at the Birmingham Hippodrome in mid-November to a foyer filled with decorations and the prospect of a performance thoroughly focused on celebrating Christmas, it would be easy to forget that a whole month lies ahead before the big day. We may not all be quite ready for snowflakes, sugar mice and stockings just yet, but what the night still taught was the influence of magic upon an audience.

As producer Sir Peter Wright believes, “It’s not the magic tricks, it’s the magic of the music, the magic of the fantasy, the magic of dance.” Granted, magician Drosselmeyer casts several spells over the children, party guests and Clara during the performance, but it seems the name ‘Nutcracker’ itself draws an enchantment of its own. Where else on a November’s night in Birmingham would you find a giggling group of women wearing tiaras in the Royal Box, or a row of sequined shoed little girls wiggling along to the overture? The production seems to lift spirits before it’s even started, and it’s an attitude that’s easily infectious.

An indulgence for the eyes, John Macfarlane’s designs have become almost as iconic as Tchaikovsky’s musical score. From curtain up we are taken straight to the heart of a sumptuous Victorian family celebration, where the world of chiffon, silk, high ceilings and even higher Christmas trees hypnotise us into believing that a life-size rat could definitely be killed with a pointe shoe.

Fresh from their annual solo performance at Birmingham Cathedral the previous evening, Royal Ballet Sinfonia provided the earworm to everyone’s weekend under the guidance of conductor Koen Kessels. It is often easy to hear the legendary tinkle of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo and associate it with the latest advert for a shopping centre or chocolate, but in doing only this you’d be missing out. For as dance critic Ismene Brown puts it, there are ‘extended passages of transition that often touch more deeply on our emotions’. Soaring and sensitive in equal measure, it is to me Tchaikovsky’s finest work, and without it the production would simply be left in the dark.

Clara was danced with a spirited tenderness by principal Momoko Hirata. Aside from the party pieces performed with friends, the role demands an almost constant stage presence and surprisingly advanced pas de deux with the Nutcracker doll, a feat Hirata was more than capable of achieving. A widespread and rich production for the Company’s impressive corps de ballet, Wright’s work sees flurries of snowflakes and twirling flowers transport the spectator along with them into this alluring escapism. The production also provides plenty of opportunity for dancers to shine in its numerous character roles. From the glacial grace of Snow Fairy Jenna Roberts, to the elevation of Jack-in-the-Box Tzu-Chao Chou, the unsettling authority of Iain Mackay’s Drosselmeyer and the suggestive amour of Clara’s Mother Samara Downs, there is always something to draw the eye.

This idea develops into Act II, as variations performed from far flung lands immerse us in the jubilation until we reach the heady finale of the grande pas de deux. A technical set-piece between the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince, principals Nao Sakuma and Chi Chao, provided a stellar show of technical stamina and skill whilst containing the chemistry and fizz to wow even a ballet newcomer.

Waking to find her ventures with the magician all a dream, we had the upper hand over Clara in that we had been able to experience this world in reality for a few precious hours. Birmingham Royal Ballet offer a truly captivating performance for the arts buff and theatre foreigner, and with countless performances left before Christmas, there’s no excuse not to become the former.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs until 12 December at the Birmingham Hippodrome. For more information please visit www.brb.org.uk. 

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