The Nutcracker is at the heart of English National Ballet's repertoire: they've danced it in London every Christmas for the past 55 years. The problem is not the company but the current production. Dancers and music struggle to get past Gerald Scarfe's overbearing designs.
As a cartoonist, Scarfe has an instantly recognisable style, but its exaggerations don't transfer to the stage. His sets draw shrieking attention to themselves, with the storyline written out on the walls and Nutcracker dolls dancing up the proscenium frames. Christopher Hampson's choreography is there to serve the designs, not the other way round.
Characters are weighted down by padded costumes and elaborate wigs. Even the simpler costumes encourage one-joke, one-note performances. It's to the dancers' credit that they manage to project past them. In the first-act party scene, the grandfather turns up with his younger girlfriend, Miss V. Aggra, Jane Haworth, inside an exaggerated hourglass figure. It can't be easy to wiggle seductively under all that costuming, but Haworth casts bright, naughty glances about her.
Scarfe and Hampson do have some nice inventions. The mouse battle goes briskly, with modern soldier toys parachuting into the fray. Adam Pudney is a menacing Mouse King, with fearsome jaws. When the Nutcracker and the young heroine Clara set off for the Land of Sweets, they travel on a origami paper bird.
On the first night, Maria Kochetkova was a vivacious Clara. She has a sweeping line, and dances with expansive glee. But the Land of Sweets is a disappointment. Scarfe's mountains of cake and ice cream, and a chocolate Royal Box from which Clara watches the national dances, lack fantasy.
The dance costumes are often shockingly unflattering. The Mirlitons' zebra stripes make even dancers look bulgy.
The original Nutcracker choreography was by Ivanov. Whatever else they change, most British Nutcrackers keep his grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince. Hampson scrambles it badly, tweaking and reordering familiar steps. Daria Klimentová is a light Sugar Plum, elegant but missing radiance. Dmitri Gruzdyev, as the Nutcracker Prince, gives clear support to both Clara and Sugar Plum.
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