English National Ballet has danced The Nutcracker every year since 1950. It's the company's Christmas tradition, and they're sticking to it. Or stuck with it: this current production does the company no favours. It's by far the weakest show in ENB's Christmas season, both as a Nutcracker and as a company showcase.
Created in 2002, the production has choreography by Christopher Hampson, but is dominated by Gerald Scarfe's overbearing designs. Scarfe uses a huge book, illustrated with his own cartoons, as a framing device. His distinctive style, with its exaggerated proportions and giant noses, looks all right on the page, but not when he imposes it on dancers' bodies.
The Christmas party guests are weighed down with padding and mad wigs. The grandfather's sexy girlfriend (groaningly called Ms V. Aggra) has obviously fake curves; the heroine's father is smothered in a bald wig with lurid fringing. Characterisation is aimlessly satirical, with the party full of jealous wives and frumpy aunts.
The magician Drosselmeyer dances with the short-sighted maid, hypnotising her into glamour – then dumping her back again when she wakes up. The coarse characters and the exaggerated clothes leave little room for performance.
The Nutcracker demands spectacle. Scarfe and Hampson are uneven in delivering it. Hampson uses most of the growing Christmas tree music on a wandering duet for the young heroine Clara and the transformed Nutcracker doll. The tree itself is disappointing.
The mouse battle is more fun, with mice in gas masks and soldiers descending on parachutes. Even so, the battle is loosely choreographed, without much drama. The production's best moment comes with the waltz of the snowflakes. They leap out of a giant fridge, making spiky shapes in the air.
Crystal Costa is a lively Clara, spontaneous and brightly danced. Yat-Sen Chang is an energetic Nutcracker. As Drosselmeyer, Fabian Reimair is bouncy in the virtuoso steps, but tends to mug in his mime scenes.
The second act is less grating, with simpler costumes for the divertissements in the Land of Sweets. Unwisely, Hampson re-choreographs the celebrated pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier, stuffing it full of swooning supported poses. Fernanda Oliveira's Sugar Plum is sleek but knowing, playing up to the audience too much. Her partner, Dmitri Gruzdyev, is unrelaxed in dancing and manner.
The corps and soloists, who have been dancing strongly this year, are unfocused in this Nutcracker. There are some exceptions. Vadim Muntagirov tears through the Russian dance, his jumps exuberantly high. Adam Pudney is an acrobatic grandfather. Gavin Sutherland conducts ENB's own orchestra in a buoyant performance of Tchaikovsky's lovely score.
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