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Dance: Too sweet to be wholesome

DEREK DEANE'S production of the English National Ballet's Nutcracker isn't quite good clean fun if you are an adult and paying attention. Drosselmeyer is Clara's godfather and the implicit tone of his attentions towards her are clearly inappropriate. The threat of paedophilia provides a subconscious logic to the sinister figure he cuts in her dreams, but it is odd for a ballet that is a traditional children's treat.

Childish eyes presumably don't take this in. Perhaps they won't be too disturbed, either, by Clara's dysfunctional family, her philandering father inviting his mistress to their Christmas party. But that, too, gives psychological sense to Clara's escape into dreamland; and besides, it is part of Deane's wittily contemporary staging, where the women wear chic cocktail dresses and one guest conducts a domestic squabble on her mobile phone. The audience laughed at the Robotcop, Barbie Doll and Michael Jackson lookalikes which arrived as Drosselmeyer's dolls.

Derek Deane, returning to performance after almost a decade, comes close to dominating the whole show as Drosselmeyer, vividly painting the character's ambiguous fascination. His mime is wonderfully incisive as he summons the magic which delights the party children and populates the dream; but he also shows he has lost none of his smooth partnering skill in a long, strenuous pas de deux with Clara.

Alice Crawford as Clara, and Xian Zhang as her naughty brother, Fritz, are adult dancers who seem no older than the real children on stage. Crawford, whose twiglet arms could probably snap, has toned down her simpers and curlicued affectations, making her a charming Clara.

The best dancing, though, comes from Daria Klimentova as the Snow Queen, so icily precise, her series of profile arabesques seem etched on air that has suddenly solidified. Around her, dancing Icicles and Snowflakes build a flurry of crisscrossing lines as angelic children's voices sing with orchestra under Patrick Flynn's textured direction.

The rest of Deane's choreography is less interesting, especially in the Kingdom of Sweets. The set numbers seem surprisingly predictable, although the giant moving bags of candies are a witty invention. Sue Blane's designs - so elegant in the earlier scenes - are part of the problem here. It was a fun idea to take English confectionery as her inspiration; but Liquorice Allsorts are more colourful than beautiful.

Perhaps it would have had more sparkle for me with a different couple in the focal pas de deux for the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Thomas Edur takes great care to move with clean geometry, but he is not an exciting virtuoso. Agnes Oaks lacks stretch and her phrasing suffers from a monotonous sameness. I can only conclude that the popular appeal of this partnership rests on their blond, catwalk glamour.

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