The Nutcracker: Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham / Royal Albert Hall, London

Nutcrackers lack crunch
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The Independent Culture

Here are two traditional Nutcrackers - but whose tradition? Though Birmingham Royal Ballet and St Petersburg Ballet Theatre both set the story in the 19th century, using material from earlier productions, they have barely a step in common. There's no doubt which works better. The solid opulence of Peter Wright's Birmingham production easily overtakes the flimsy sugar of the St Petersburg troupe.

As a producer, Wright tends to fiddle with the storyline of traditional ballets. This time, he builds up the role of the magician Drosselmeyer, giving him a show of conjuring at the Christmas party. The heroine Clara becomes a ballet student, the daughter of a ballerina, while the Sugar Plum Fairy becomes Clara's dream of herself as an adult.

Wright's first act is his best, with a handsome party scene designed in rich colours. This naturalistic world is imagined in friendly detail. Lively child guests (from the Elmhurst and Royal Ballet Schools) hanker after toys, or fall asleep early. In a vivid character role, Marion Tait is kind and gracious as Clara's mother.

Wright's magic scenes are spectacular. The Christmas tree grows upwards, then vanishes, replaced by broad branches that make a canopy over the stage. The mouse battle is fiercely fought. The King Rat is a dashing, piratical figure, his crown worn rakishly over one big ear. Kosuke Yamamoto bounds through as the jack-in-the-box toy, his dancing clean and quick.

Wright's tweaks have the oddest effect on the second act, however. The careful reality of the party isn't matched by the realms of magic - we lose the sense of place, of an onstage world. There's no Land of Sweets, no kingdom ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy. Demoted to Clara's dream, the ballerina becomes a cipher. Drosselmeyer rushes in to fill the gap, introducing every dance with a flourish of his cloak. Luckily, Michael O'Hare makes a calm sorcerer. His tricks are nicely timed, and he avoids upstaging the divertissement.

Carol-Anne Millar is an eager, characterful Clara, with a quick jump and polished footwork. Nao Sakuma's Sugar Plum is neat and pretty, but she lacks the grandeur for this music. Chi Cao, on the other hand, makes a splendid Nutcracker. He moves with broad grace, his upper body showing military discipline and then aristocratic elegance.

For all the conjuring tricks, Wright's luxurious production can miss the magic of this music, giving us more plot and less wonder. Yet there's a sense of affection on stage and in the auditorium, of a company happily at home.

The solidity of Birmingham's production is beyond the means of St Petersburg Ballet Theatre. This young company, founded in 1994, spends much of its time touring Britain with popular classics, mostly modelled on Kirov productions. This feeble Nutcracker follows Vasily Vainonen's staging. Company coach Svetlana Efremova adds an exaggerated duet for Clara and the Nutcracker, using music from Tchaikovsky's orchestral suites. Sets and costumes are shiny and thin. The production looks dwarfed by the Royal Albert Hall.

The storytelling is weak, but so is the choreography. There's a lot of prancing for the party scene and mouse battle, a great many jumps on pointe for the divertissement. The sad thing is that this young troupe show signs of strong technique. That pointe work is ugly, but it's tidily performed. Furious spins and fouettés are confidently done.

Irina Kolesnikova is a miscast Clara. Her air of hard sophistication doesn't suit a child heroine, while her dancing has too much saccharine, even for a land of sweets.

Birmingham Royal Ballet's 'Nutcracker' runs to 13 December (08707 301 234); St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is tour to 10 February (see www.arts-world.co.uk)

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