The Critics: Dance: Sugar and spice and all things that don't work

Royal Ballet: Nutcracker Royal Opera House, London ENB: Nutcracker Coliseum, London
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The Independent Culture
What's it to be this year, Nutcracker or Nutcracker? In the provinces, Russian troupes vie with each other to offer the more "traditional" pitch. Birmingham Royal Ballet's version has notched up its 10th sell-out season. And in London, two major productions have opened in the last fortnight. There's even a website devoted to casting information and gossip ( Ironic, then, that Nutcracker, of all ballets, with its skimpy plot, its childish attractions of toys and sweets, and the absence of most of its original choreography, is the only classical dancework many adults ever get to see. Why stop there? For that matter, why start there? I'm not sure either of London's big two will convert anyone to ballet for life. But each has its charms, and makes valiant efforts to make sense of a work blessed with less logic than most.

The Royal Ballet's is by far the grander production - a revision of Peter Wright's 1984 staging with its settings by Julia Trevelyan Oman. The Act I party takes place in a rich, Nuremberg household where every detail - from grandpa's Biedermeier bath chair to the children's muslin-wrapped presents - speaks of months of study at the V&A. Among godfather Drosselmeyer's party tricks are clockwork dolls emerging from giant pies. Too bad that on opening night a harlequin popped out before he was bidden. And this was not the only mishap: candles went dark before being blown out, stage flats wobbled, a toy soldier's musket fired in the wings, the Christmas tree failed to grow on cue. You couldn't help reflect that the ballet's Imperial Russian creators managed these things rather better without computerised stage technology.

Anthony Dowell plays his Drossel-meyer straight, as a shy, punctilious uncle who employs a magician's garb to cloak his feelings as much as to flag his conjuring tricks. An impromptu kiss from the adolescent Clara (sweet Marta Barahona) causes him more consternation than pleasure. In view of this reticence, wasn't it odd to have him levitate in full view of the party guests? A case of "have technology, character go hang" I felt. Still, Dowell makes an intriguing and elegant pivot to the action. Less successful were additional scenes which tried to justify the plot - some business about Drosselmeyer's nephew, imprisoned by a magic spell. They were too brief to deliver the information.

Dancewise, this production attempts to even up the balance between two famously lopsided halves. Wright adds extra choreography to Act I: for once, some really engaging steps for the party children and a pas de deux for Clara and Jonathan Howells's Nutcracker which taps a vein of real youthful ardour. But considering the research that went into the Dance of the Snowflakes - pieced together from old Russian notations - it was disappointing. The original fielded 60 snowflakes; we got 24. Surely, with the Royal's resources, it could have whipped up more of a flurry?

In Act II, the idea of basing the Kingdom of Sweets on a gothic table decoration gives a courtly symmetry to what can be a haphazard set of dances. Wright's Arabian Dance is particularly fine - though I pitied the harem attendant who had to balance the company's tallest girl above his head like a water jug. And finally, the Prince and Sugar Plum - potentially the dullest characters in all ballet, since they appear out of nowhere, and have no practical function except to remind us of the civilising nature of art - are required to cap the evening with a very formal grand pas. Darcey Bussell - with her Bambi-like delicacy of leg and her long, slow reach - rose superbly to the challenge. Almost out of gallantry, you felt, Roberto Bolle's pantherish jumps and turns were more restrained. That there was little palpable charge between them didn't matter. Individually, they summed up the show: ambitiously scaled, glittering, grand. But not a thing to make you leap up and cheer.

There is more fun to be had in Derek Deane's modernised Nutcracker for ENB, which is odd because Deane underlays his first half with a rather sinister subtext. Again, company director takes the master-of-ceremonies role, which must be unnerving for the dancers, having the boss on stage. Deane's Drosselmeyer is not the kindly, avuncular kind. He's a smart alec who orchestrates the entire fantasy to please himself. After entertaining the kiddies at the party with his toys - a scarily brilliant Robocop, Michael Jackson doll and Barbie - he plucks Clara from the sterile chic of her parents' Belgravia mansion and presents her with a world of possibilities that may or may not include a dalliance with her "uncle".

To watch Deane inveigle himself into the Nutcracker's place during Clara's pas de deux, hover hungrily over her innocent neck, half-swoon as the hem of her nightie brushes his face, is like taking a sip from a cream soda and finding it laced with vinegar, though in all fairness no child I have taken to see this show has picked up on this. It may be nasty but it does make sense of the scenario ... half the scenario, anyway. Come Act II - on a set which looks as if a bomb has gone off in a Liquorice Allsort factory - the conjuror's misplaced passion is all but forgotten. Now he's the fun-loving Uncle D, proffering the simple tooth-rotting delights of dancing cream chocs, and joining the fun chasing a carnival Chinese dragon. This is either completely crass, or a super-subtle insight into the dilemma of early-teens. I think I go for the latter.

`Nutcracker': Royal Ballet, ROH, WC2 (020 7304 4000) in rep to 10 Jan. `Nutcracker': ENB, Coliseum, WC2 (020 7632 8300) to 8 Jan