Stanislavsky Ballet: The Nutcracker, Royal Festival Hall, London

A cracker with youth on its side
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The Independent Culture

What a difference a year can make. Last Christmas, the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet's The Nutcracker was a sellout, on the strength of that name and the promise of a traditional production. The performance that I saw then was decidedly shaky. This is the same company, the same production, but it's now a much livelier show.

The Moscow Stanislavsky is proud of its links to the Moscow Art Theatre. The company was founded in 1929, inspired in part by the "method acting" of Konstantin Stanislavsky. Those first dancers were encouraged to identify with their roles, to match classical technique with expressive acting. However, that dramatic emphasis doesn't show up in this Nutcracker. Vasily Vainonen's production is Russian traditional, with the emphasis more on classical than on character dancing.

This is a young company: in the family party of the first act, the grandmother is hardly older than the girls playing little boys. It makes the party fast and lightweight, without much dramatic texture, but this year, the dancers have more energy.

In the opening scene, groups of dancers travel along the frontcloth to the party, scampering with anticipation or quarrelling with their fellow- guests. Playing the heroine's little brother, Anna Arnautova goes big-eyed at her own naughtiness, defiantly tilting her shoulders when she's caught out. The party scene is set at the start of the 19th century, with the guests dressed in Regency-style muslins. Vladimir Arefyev's settings are spare: a wall of Christmas-card cutouts to frame the party, snow falling on the town behind them.

The magician Drosselmeyer, like the aforementioned grandmother, is a young dancer pretending to be old. He is dressed in breeches and powdered wig, but Gergei Goryunov gives him a touch of gaucherie. He's more like Hugh Laurie's Prince Regent in Blackadder, well-meaning but somewhat askew.

If the guests are 19th-century, the mice of the heroine's dream are rather more modern. Arefyev dresses them in shiny, jointed suits - armoured and robotic mice. The defending toys brandish swords, and gallop across the stage on hobbyhorses. There were a few hitches at the press performance: the Christmas tree refused to grow, and was finally swept off by the mice.

After the mouse battle, Vainonen settles down to provide dances. The Snowflakes skip forwards, men lifting women at every other step. The dancers are bright rather than polished, but the Snowflake scene does show a sense of company identity, of shared style.

The second act takes place in a non-specific fairyland, rather than the traditional Kingdom of Sweets. Arefyev dresses the national dancers in white, with coloured pompons. Vainonen's dances are full of jumps, the company's men bounding with a will. The highlight of most Nutcrackers is the grand pas de deux, the surviving patch of Ivanov's original choreography. Russian productions don't always keep that, and Vainonen's duet is some way after Ivanov. Still, Natalia Krapivina is a light, quick dancer, with a buoyant style. Her prince, Georgy Smilevski, jumps brightly and partners politely.

The company brings its own orchestra, and Georgy Zhemchuzhin certainly conducted a brisk account of Tchaikovsky's lovely score.

To 9 January (0870 405 0050)

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