Arts: Dance: No visual feast

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The Independent Culture
WE ALL know the Royal Ballet has to watch its pennies, but surely patching up its Nutcracker is the opposite of good economic sense. Peter Wright's 1984 production has just emerged from plastic surgery involving implants to the action and tucks to the designs. It was dull from the start, and now is as dull as ever.

The designer, Julia Trevelyan Oman, remains the chief culprit. Her Beidermeier setting for Act One might be irreproachable in its historical accuracy and the wheelchair transporting doddery Grandfather Stahlbaum might well be exhibited in the V&A, but that does not make vivid or even congenial theatre.

Her invention of the Kingdom of Sweets as the magnified architecture of a table sugar-decoration was clever. But extending the off-whiteness of the walls to all the costumes bleaches the life out of the contrasted divertissement numbers.

Given the ROH's new stage technology, the lack of visual excitement is all the more disappointing. The ballet's first creators, Petipa and Ivanov, managed without computerised scene changes and their 60 fluffy white Snowflake dancers must have whirled up a sensational snowstorm. Wright's 24 do not, despite his efforts to restore the original notated choreography. Young Clara's nocturnal return to the drawing-room begins potently enough, but the battle of the mice is muddled and dull. And what is The Nutcracker without a Christmas tree that grows? The Royal Ballet's can scarcely struggle up a few inches.

Wright's 1984 production sought to give the ballet's inchoate plot a dramatic cohesion and he now tries to clarify this with extra scenes at the start. But the premises remain too involved to be explicable in dance terms and the story proves as intractable as ever. He also tries to achieve greater continuity by giving more dancing to Clara, the Nutcracker and Drosselmeyer's exuberant assistant.

Drosselmeyer becomes less of a family friend, more of a supernatural outsider, and it is not Anthony Dowell's fault that the character has lost depth on the way. Even so, Dowell eloquently holds us in his sway. Marta Barahona and Jonathan Howells bring sweet conviction to Clara and the Nutcracker.

Roberto Bolle managed to show his cat-like soft finishes and partnered Darcey Bussell elegantly. She was glorious in her celeste variation, playing with the phrasing and emphasising details in a way I've not seen before. It was some compensation for a production that should have been allowed to linger on briefly as it was. Better to have put money towards a new Nutcracker.

To 8 Jan, 0171-304 4000