English National Ballet is looking good under its new director. Matz Skoog inherited a highly disciplined company; now the dancers seem more at ease, but still as bright and crisp as you could ask. So their Nutcracker is the show to see, is it? Well, up to a point. Personally, I'm looking forward to the Stanislavsky Ballet's Snow Maiden at the Festival Hall as a Christmas treat, and if you simply want a great night out, the English National Opera's Mikado had me chuckling with joy from start to finish.
But if it's The Nutcracker you feel you must have, ENB's is certainly a better bargain than the Royal Ballet's production, running in competition, and not only because the Coliseum's seats mostly offer a better view than Covent Garden's, and its prices are less exorbitant.
ENB also has the advantage of Sue Blane's chic, generally flattering designs, to set against the Royal's drab clutter. As for the music, which ought to be this ballet's great selling point, neither orchestra exactly covers itself with glory this season; there is some notably strident playing under the National's new music director Anthony Twiner.
Neither version makes the story really satisfactory either, and Derek Deane's updating for ENB remains odd, to say the least. I hope that Christopher Hampson will have the courage to be throroughly traditional in his new production for the company next year. Wisely, however, the inappropriate sexual innuendos have been played down this time, so there is no need to fear an attack from the News of the World.
There will be innumerable different casts during the three-week run; the opening night saw Thomas Edur promoted to Derek Deane's own former role of Drosselmeyer, and treating this Fairy Godfather as being unambiguously the lead. I suspect that most of us had been unaware of how much skittery detail there is in the dancing, and he times it with infallible flair, while adding a sweet smile to the ruefulness with which he reminds himself not to grow too fond of little Clara (the beguiling Caroline Duprot).
Male dancing pretty well throughout was on a high level, with Dmitri Gruzdev a fine Nutcracker Prince: handsome, a generous partner and full of dash in his soaring, spinning solos. Outstanding also were Shi-Ning Liu in his Russian solo (such jumps, such exuberance), and Yosvani Ramos in his fast, crisp Spanish number with Simone Clarke.
I had forgotten what fun the dragon is, interrupting the Chinese dance (tough on the two soloists, who get eclipsed). And can there ever have been a bigger bang in the battle with the mice? Jean-Luc Burke as the Nutcracker Doll must be armed with a bazooka, at least.
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