The Nutcracker, Coliseum, London

Strip away the outsize costumes and dream noodling, and marvel at the dancing
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The Independent Culture

Six productions and rising.

That's the tally of Nutcrackers on offer in the coming week, not counting any smaller touring shows that might creep under the radar.

It isn't always like that. Some years Prokofiev's Cinderella gets a look in. But for Christmas 2011 the British ballet scene is looking almost American, with productions of the Tchaikovsky evergreen at the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, both at home and at the O2; beamed live to cinemas from the Mariinsky in St Petersburg and City Ballet in New York; at Sadler's Wells in a spunky re-write by Matthew Bourne; and in a staging for English National Ballet by Wayne Eagling, a project whose difficulties were brutally exposed earlier this year in a BBC4 mini-series.

Given the pressure to appeal to folk who loathed the company's previous Nutcracker as well as the usual families and office partiers, it's understandable that Eagling played it safe (though it may not have looked that way on screen when ENB's dancers were left having to make bits up on opening night because the choreography wasn't finished – but that's history now).

The fact that almost none of the 1892 choreography survives leaves scope for an imaginative producer. But Eagling is imaginative only in fits and starts, and his attempt to balance the ballet's mismatched halves ends up merely adding muddle.

All choreographers wrestle with these basic oddnesses: a first act that's all plot and a second that's all dancing, probably a result of professional meltdown at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg with key creatives dropping out at the last minute and a disgruntled composer who hated his brief (think what a field day reality TV would have had).

But what emerged in Tchaikovsky's hands is a warm evocation of a Christmas party, followed by an almost apocalyptic vision of magical transformation, the real world into dream world, a Nutcracker doll (such a very odd present for an adolescent girl) into a strapping Prince.

Eagling's production tackles the dearth of story by bleeding elements of the first half into the second, notably by sending King Rat and his mousey henchmen into the Land of Sweets, in an attempt to scupper the budding romance. At its best, this results in the fantastic sight, just as the interval curtain falls, of the pair taking off on their travels by hot-air balloon with King Rat dangling by his claws from the basket. Mostly, though, it produces a lot of pointless activity for dancers in hot, itchy costumes.

Invented dream sequences also make for confusion where they were clearly meant to add logic, the Nutcracker (a grimly masked Junor Sousa) morphing into Drosselmeyer's nephew (handsome Vadim Muntagirov) and back again, several times. And if I, a veteran of 31 Nutcrackers and counting, was lost at this point, what chance a first-timer? It's bad enough Clara being danced by both a child (Lowri Shone) and an adult (Daria Klimentova), and her sister popping up in Act II as a butterfly.

Peter Farmer's designs, springing no surprises, are at their best in outdoor scenes such as his frozen Thames, the party guests arriving on skates, having snowball fights and falling over. Another lovely wintry touch is the magicking of the drawing-room Christmas tree, already grown to double its size, into a frost-covered forest pine, smoothing the transition to a good Dance of the Snowflakes.

In the end, though, all traditional Nutcrackers stand or fall on the pure dance-wattage of their lead couple in the final pas de deux, the one sequence that has survived from the 1890s. If you're lucky enough to catch a cast with Klimentova and Muntagirov in it, you'll know what I mean. They blaze with a fierce containment that leaves the silly story a dimming memory.

To 30 Dec (0871 911 0200)

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert hears an early Kurt Weill score revived in Magical Night

Dance Choice

Aurélia Thiérrée never had to run away to the circus: she was born in one. The acrobat-cum-illusionist child of Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée takes up residence on London's South Bank with Murmurs (Queen Elizabeth Hall, (20 Dec to 2 Jan) and White, for two- to four-year-olds (Spirit Level, Royal Festival Hall, 17 to 31 Dec).

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