DANCE / Totally smitten by Sweetieland

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The Independent Culture
THERE was nearly a riot at Sadler's Wells on Wednesday. People were screaming and shouting. This was not because they couldn't get into the performance but because they didn't want to leave. They wanted more of Adventures in Motion Pictures' dazzling Nutcracker. Martin Duncan and Matthew Bourne, the company's artistic director and choreographer, reinvent the 101-year-old ballet with such vitality and glamour that an exhilarated audience looked set to rush the stage.

Bourne's new-model Nutcracker is based on E T A Hoffman's tale. The first part is set, not at the Stahlbaum's house, but in a drab 19th-century orphanage where the children are hunched in their misery. Even the gifts dished out by po-faced governors are cheerless - wooden rattles and muddy teddy bears. Out of this scene grows Clara's (Etta Murfitt's) dream of escape, which is made possible when her nutcracker toy comes alive. But not even in her dreams could Clara have imagined the road to Sweetieland would be travelled arm-in- arm with Andrew George, a hunk out of a Hugo Boss ad. She is smitten.

They pass a frozen lake, where men and women glide over the ice, spinning and turning, bodies bending forwards, arms swinging as they pick up speed. But how faithless her hunk turns out to be. He is going to Sweetieland not to woo Clara but to marry his sweetheart, the Princess Sugar - and Clara is not on the guest list. She watches, nose metaphorically pressed against the window, as all sorts arrive - Marshmallow Girls in pink bouffant dresses, Gobstoppers in cycle shorts and plastic helmets, Knickerbocker Glory (Bourne himself) in lime, pink and white jacket and Douglas Hurd Mr Whippy hair.

When The Nutcracker was first performed it was hooted out of St Petersburg for being hollow. Bourne adds depth by making it sad and searching, as well as witty. Once bereft, always bereft, he seems to be saying. The happy ending is more afterthought than aphorism. And by remaining faithful to Tchaikovsky's score, Bourne has created a confection so delightful that the flavour lingers with the memory of disciplined, funny performances that admirably resist straying into camp.

The first act (orphanage and lake), with its hints of slapstick, musical theatre and silent- screen gestures, is more inventive than the candy-coloured second act, but on the whole, you would have to search hard to find a better night out.

More traditional but equally delightful is Peter Wright's Nutcracker for Birmingham Royal Ballet, of which he is the director. This is a second Peter Wright production of the ballet, dedicated to Birmingham in 1990, and quite different from the one the Royal Ballet will perform next Friday.

Wright and the designer John Macfarlane have fun with the idea of scale. After the party, Clara (Simone Clarke) can't sleep and comes downstairs. 'The room seems to grow and grow,' says the programme, and that's no word of a lie. The Christmas tree rises so the action takes place under a large, baubled branch. The mantelpiece opposite becomes so huge that dancer-rats storm out of the fireplace to battle with toy soldiers. The illusion of size becomes so plausible that you can almost hear Peter Wright say: 'Honey, I shrunk the dancers.' The effect is magnificent.

To the classic Ivanov divertissements, Wright and Vincent Redmon, a BRB principal, have devised their own choreography to create a clean, uncluttered and spectacular ballet of transformations. We move from a chintzy baronial mansion, to the magical Land of Snow to a fantastical palace with outsized flowers, moon and sun, without once lifting our jaws from the floor. But as amazing as this Nutcracker is to look at, the focus is always on classical dance.

A word of warning to dancers: never agree to share the stage with the winsome children of Birmingham because no one will look at you. Kevin O'Hare, making his debut as Dr Drosselmeyer, steals the show back from the children with his swarthy, I'm-in-charge-here aura and flowing zodiac cloak. The floaty Simone Clarke is a fresh Clara, but Ravenna Tucker as the Sugar Plum Fairy takes the production to a higher plane with her luminosity, charisma and cool grace. Another must.

AMP, Sadler's Wells, 071-278 8916, to Sat; BRB, Hippodrome, 021-622 7486, to Sat.

In the Critical Guide in today's 'Sunday Review' (page 107), the wrong listings have been inserted for dance. This was an editing error for which we apologise.

(Photograph omitted)