Arts: If it's Christmas, it must the Nutcracker

Tchaikovksy's music is glorious, but too often the ballet become a sickly confection. Can it ever be spiced for adult tastes?

If you go to ballet only once in a lifetime, chances are it will be The Nutcracker. At this time of year it sometimes becomes difficult to see anything else. And having gone, perhaps you'll wonder what all the fuss was about. I can't blame you; they were dancing the last scene of The Nutcracker the first time I ever went to ballet as a schoolboy, and I knew at once this was not what I wanted. Luckily it was only part of a mixed bill and the rest was enticing enough to start me on a lifetime's dance addiction. That's been great, but the one ironic disadvantage is that year after year I have had to watch more Nutcrackers than I care to think about: dozens of productions, many hundreds of performances.

The annual surfeit is something that developed in this half-century. The complete ballet, premiered in Saint Petersburg in 1892, was more than 40 years old before it reached the West in 1934, and then it proved the least popular of the old classics that Ninette de Valois introduced for her Vic-Wells Ballet. So when Anton Dobin wanted an un-hackneyed classic for the newly formed Festival Ballet in 1950, Nutcracker was his choice and he found he could shift tickets thanks to the attractions of Tchaikovsky's music and the Christmas connections of a party, a tree, presents and snowflakes prominent in the tenuous plot. So that company, later renamed English National Ballet, has given it every Christmas since then: a solid prop for the box office. With George Balanchine's 1954 staging for New York City Ballet The Nutcracker became an equally perennial moneyspinner across the Atlantic, too. Now everyone copies their success.

Because it provides a convenient Christmas treat, there is a myth that this is a good introduction to ballet for children. But is that so? If only a small proportion of the millions of youngsters taken to it every year actually developed a habit watching dance, all other programmes would be equally packed to bursting.

Another curious thing is that the quality of the production seems to have little effect. Festival Ballet and its ENB successor have had seven distinct versions. At first each was better than the one before, culminating in Jack Carter's staging which lasted for 11 years from 1965. It made sense of the plot, the dances were lively, the Benois designs stylish; almost everyone who remembers it agrees how outstanding it was. None of its successors has come near it, but does anyone care? Likewise, among the Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden productions, Frederick Ashton's had superb choreography, Rudolf Nureyev's made most sense of the characters and the story. Both of them were scrapped.

One problem with The Nutcracker is that the libretto is almost silly enough for an opera. The great choreographer Marcus Petipa wrote it in one of his less inspired moods, but fell ill and left the production to his deputy, Lev Ivanov.

A little girl's new toy, an oversized nutcracker in the form of a soldier, comes to life to defend her from threatening mice, but she actually has to save him; in reward, he takes her through a snowy landscape to what is called the kingdom of sweets, although this proves only an excuse for a good old knees-up of Spanish, Russian, fake Chinese and pseudo-Arabian dances, plus a couple of ensembles and a classical pas de deux.

Some producers play it straight, as a fantasy; others look for more dramatic points through the idea of the girl growing up. A few have tried to add bite by bringing in more of the Hoffmann tale that was the ballet's remote original inspiration, but that can get confusing. Sometimes the little girl is given an alternative present of a pair of ballet shoes, so we learn that what she wants when she grows up, rather than becoming Mrs Nutcracker, is to be a ballerina. John Neumeier's staging in Hamburg is the most successful version of this in my experience, and in developing the balletic background he actually introduces Petipa as one of his characters.

That is a modest adaptation compared with the one by Yuri Vamos for the Bonn Ballet, which somehow brought in Scrooge and Bob Cratchet from Dickens's A Christmas Carol. And for the Australian Ballet, Graeme Murphy managed to spread the plot over three generations, from Tzarist Russia to modern Sydney. I remember with some affection Roland Petit's Nutcracker for the Marseille Ballet which amusingly brought the Salvation Army skating on as the heavenly choir in the snowflakes scene. Petit's ideas also included giving Drosselmeyer (the character who brings the Nutcracker present) a soft shoe shuffle to entertain the children at the party, and a reflective solo later, for which he added music by the same E T A Hoffmann who wrote the original Nutcracker story. You may gather that, as a change from the multiplicity of standard Nutcracker productions, I sometimes collect interesting variants, and I have just added another well outside the usual run, which is playing in Paris all this month.

Maurice Bejart is not often tempted to rework the classics; the only previous example was variations on dances from The Sleeping Beauty. This time he has invented an entirely new autobiographical story to fit Tchaikovsky's music. His own mother died when he was seven, so he starts by remembering a sad little boy gazing at a drab Christmas tree with last year's decorations. But the ballet soon becomes fun as he grows up (playing with a toy theatre, joining the boy scouts, riding bicycles, learning to dance) and his mother returns repeatedly in memory, never a day older and always beautiful, to inspire him.

A huge statue of her as a classical goddess, some six metres high, dominates the stage, and the woman herself (delicately performed by Elisabet Ros) appears dressed in ball gown or beachwear, in street clothes or, most beguilingly, as a 1930s vamp. The other main characters are the boy and his cat, Felix, who entertainingly annexes much of the showiest dancing for himself.

Brother and sister are present too, but not Papa (in real life a professor of philosophy), although he gets mentioned in the linking comments, which Bejart has recorded on video, as having pointed out that the inside of a walnut, his son's favourite Christmas dessert, resembles a human brain. Also, the fact that he was one of many family members who played musical instruments for pleasure gives Bejart the pretext to introduce a popular accordionist (Yvette Horner) as a gloriously blowzy fairy-godmother. Her playing adds squeakily elaborate variations, joining with the Orchestre Colonne, in a couple of Tchaikovsky's big waltzes, and provides extra music for a louche Parisian number which Bejart adds to the round-the- world divertissement. At just one point Bejart refuses to invent his own dances. Having learned the original classical pas de deux as a young man dancing in England, he rightly determined to retain that.

Respectfully, he ascribes it to the master, Petipa, who like Bejart was born in Marseilles but found fame abroad. We may believe the dance is actually by Petipa's Russian colleague, Ivanov, but either way it is a real gem, the highlight of any sensible production. Of course it can be given on its own, out of context, and I sometimes imagine that's the most enjoyable way of taking it.

Bejart's `Nutcracker' is at Theatre du Chatelet, Paris, until 31 December. English National Ballet's production is at the London Coliseum until 8 January, and the Royal Ballet's is in repertory at Covent Garden until 10 January

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders