New Nutracker: A Christmas cracker

On Friday night the English National Ballet unveils a new Nutcracker, its 10th production of the seasonal classic in 60 years. Alice Jones drops in on rehearsals to discover the secret of its enduring appeal

When Wayne Eagling took over as artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet in 1991, he gave an introductory speech. "And one of the first things I said was, 'I'm so happy to be the director of a company that doesn't do The Nutcracker'," he recalls. Now, as artistic director of English National Ballet, he has had to eat his words. On Friday night, Eagling will unveil his new Nutcracker at London's Coliseum. It will be the English National Ballet's tenth version – and its first new production of the Christmas classic in almost a decade.

It's hard to overstate the relationship the English National Ballet has with Clara, Fritz et al. Every year since the company was founded 60 years ago, it has staged The Nutcracker at Christmas. In fact, it kicked off the Yuletide tradition over here, staging the first ever full performance of the ballet in the UK, with choreography by Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova and Grace Cone, at London's Stoll (now Peacock) Theatre in the winter of 1950. Since then there have been multiple versions, from David Lichine's Sixties recreation of the 19th-century Russian original to Derek Deane's 1997 update, complete with Barbie dolls, Robocops and Michael Jackson mannequins dancing under the tree. In other words, come December, anything goes as long as there's a Sugar Plum Fairy on top. "This is English National Ballet's trademark," says Eagling. "Certainly I would be the first director since the company started in 1950 not to do The Nutcracker."

And so, this week the full company of 67 dancers, and 25 children, with some 400 costumes between them, has decamped to the London Coliseum where they will perform The Nutcracker twice a day, every day, for the rest of the year. That's 32 performances, or 64 hours of waltzing flowers and pirouetting snowflakes – all played out in front of, more than likely, sell-out audiences.

What is it about the work that so captures the imagination of the ticket-buying public? It has often been regarded as the poor relation in ballet circles, little more than a series of saccharine divertissements that lack the emotional depth and drama of the great romantic classics – and the eeriness of Hoffmann's original tale. Certainly prima ballerinas turn their noses up at it, preferring the fireworks of Carmen, the rawness of Manon, even the black-and-white duality of swans Odette and Odile to the childish Clara or the sickly sweet Sugar Plum Fairy.

Snobbery aside, The Nutcracker remains one of the finest, and most popular ballets in the repertory thanks in no small part to Tchaikovsky's lush romantic score. At the first performance of Petipa and Ivanov's ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1892, while the Sugar Plum Fairy was derided as "podgy" and the fight scenes were lampooned for being "disorderly and amateurish", critics heaped praise on the rich, melodious music. Since then it has become a stalwart of the festive season, its Christmas Eve setting in a land of living toys and confectionary castles attracting a whole new audience, not least young children for whom it offers a first delicious taste of ballet.

For many companies, the ballet also plays a crucial role as a guaranteed box-office hit, the breadwinner for the rest of the year. "It makes you survive, especially as things get more and more difficult," says Eagling. "I'd probably rather be doing a new full evening ballet that's never been done before than reviving a Nutcracker. But it is very important for ENB: it's every year, it's the most shows we do in a particular run and if it's successful and we do well at the box office, it makes money. The money we desperately need to do other things." Like Swan Lake, or the Duracell Bunny, The Nutcracker rarely gets tired – people will go and see it, season after season, year in, year out. And when it does start to look a little frayed around the edges, you simply commission a new one.

"Sometimes I think, 'what is the secret of Nutcracker?'," says Eagling. "If you found that out, you could do it for everything. I just don't know if it's possible to do a Nutcracker that's not successful. The music is fabulous. Even if you've never seen the ballet before, you know the tunes. Is it possible to make a bad Nutcracker? I don't know... I think the music will always win."

Not necessarily. As choreographers and artistic directors down the years have learned, you mess with The Nutcracker at your peril. Eagling's new production replaces Christopher Hampson's 2002 ballet with its designs by the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. While it enjoyed an eight-year run, playing to some 45,000 people, it raised traditionalist eyebrows, even angered some, with its deliberately unpretty costumes, grotesque masks and quirky, off-beam approach which saw the Waltz of the Snowflakes start inside a giant fridge, a streetwise Clara don a mini-skirt and mouse soldiers toting Kalashnikovs. "It seemed to be universally disliked," says Eagling. "The reviews were mostly pretty hideous. When I watched performances the kids loved it, but I think the more traditional view was that it was a bit crass."

With this in mind, Eagling, who danced countless Nutcrackers during his 22 years at the Royal Ballet, has opted for a crowd-pleasing Victorian/ Edwardian Christmas with magical tree and hot air balloons. A touch of modern twinkle will come from Swarovski, who have sprinkled tens of thousands of crystals across the snowy scenes and tutus, including the Sugar Plum Fairy's white and gold confections, which cost £2000 each.

Over at ENB HQ, rehearsals are in full swing. Ksenia Ovsyanick, wearing a diaphanous peach winged tunic which makes her look like an exotic butterfly, is trying to evade her three male suitors in the well-known Dance of the Mirlitons. "Don't forget to flutter your wings whenever you can," shouts Eagling from the sidelines. They run the scene over and over again, wondering how to pick her from the splits and hoist her into the air ("Can we try not putting her down at all?" ponders Eagling) and where her male partners should stand as she pirouettes between them like an elegant pinball. The steps, it becomes clear, are firmly classical, very pretty, very approachable but with a modern twist.

"I wanted something that harked back to Ivanov and Petipa. I also wanted to give the corps de ballet boys a bit of a challenge," says Eagling, who has borrowed several elements from the Nutcracker he choreographed for DNB with Toer Van Shayk in 1996. Hampson's version, hampered perhaps by the over-elaborate design, simply didn't have enough dancing in it, he says. "A lot of the ideas were fun, but the dancers didn't find it as challenging as they might have liked. We do two shows a day for a month, so you've got to have a show that gives some stimulation to the dancers. Otherwise you lose them and then every year The Nutcracker is looming up in prospect. I don't want to be disparaging about Christopher's choreography, but, you know, another year of jumping out of the refrigerator with a mask on that doesn't make you look particularly attractive... "

There will still be some surprises and though Clara will be danced by a girl ("I don't like grown-ups pretending to be goofy kids... "), it's a show for all ages. "I don't think ballet necessarily is for children. I think it's an adult spectator sport," says Eagling. "My aim is to do a production that if you go and see it with your family, it will have something for everyone. I'm hoping to give audiences that warm, rosy glow."

'The Nutcracker', Coliseum, London (0871 911 0200; Friday to 30 December