Look busy! That's the default strategy when the new boss drops by. But when the workers are the dancers of English National Ballet, and the boss is ex-Royal Ballet principal Tamara Rojo, who became their artistic director at the start of this season with a vow to continue dancing, none of the usual conditions apply.
Rojo leads the cast in four of 35 performances of the company's London run of The Nutcracker, a production created two years ago by her predecessor, Wayne Eagling. His leadership style had come under damaging public scrutiny in a fly-on-the-wall BBC4 series documenting the fraught run-up to the show's opening night. Two Christmasses on, his Nutcracker is at least tidier, and the onstage presence of the new director raises the company's game all round.
The only pity is that this version of the Tchaikovsky classic feels so compromised. Eagling's attempts to blend the ballet's famously mismatched halves – all story in the first, all dancing in the second – add muddle without fully solving the problem. Dream sequences meant to introduce logic make new confusions, the nutcracker doll (a masked Max Westwell in the cast I saw) morphing back and forth into Drosselmeyer's military nephew (the beautifully streamlined Esteban Berlanga) a bewildering number of times. It's challenging enough keeping tabs on a heroine danced by both a child (perky Annabella Sanders) and the adult Rojo, not to mention a sister (the impressive Laurretta Summerscales) who reappears as a butterfly.
A more successful innovation is the survival of King Rat and his mousey henchmen beyond the midnight battle of Act I to threaten the budding romance in the second half, offering the entertaining sight, just as the interval curtain falls, of Clara and her beau taking off in a hot-air balloon with King Rat dangling perilously from the basket.
Peter Farmer's solidly traditional designs are at their best in outdoor scenes such as his frozen Thames, the party guests arriving on skates. Another nice touch is the magicking of the drawing-room Christmas tree into a frost-covered forest pine, smoothing the transition to an enjoyable Dance of the Snowflakes – though it might have been sensible to have saved the corps de ballet's leaping till the louder part of the music (well played under Gavin Sutherland). In the shivery opening section the girls' shoes make an awful clatter.
Ultimately, all classical Nutcrackers stand or fall on the dance-wattage of their lead couple in the final pas de deux, the only bit that survives from the 1892 original. Rojo's Sugar Plum is a masterclass in ballerinadom, making her entrance to that famous hushed and tingly melody on celeste as if creeping up on the conductor to surprise him. And just in case you thought ballet was all about feet and arms, she shows it's just as much about eyes, repeatedly checking the audience's gaze as she reverses upstage on point, as if to say: "You'll miss something if you don't watch carefully." Whatever Rojo's future at management level, she has already left her mark on ENB.
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