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