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; www.ballet.org.uk) Friday to 30 December

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album