The Nutcracker, Coliseum, London<br/>Faeries, Linbury Studio, London

Innocent days of simple gifts, menacing nights of malice
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The Independent Culture

In America, The Nutcracker is an annual obligation for ballet companies and audiences alike.

In Britain, it's only English National Ballet that sees the Tchaikovsky sparkler as a regular seasonal duty, as inescapable as mince pies and late-night shopping. Last week, it unveiled the 10th new Nutcracker in the company's 60-year history.

Ever since taking the helm at ENB five years ago, Wayne Eagling has been itching to ditch the previous production, Gerald Scarfe's designs considered crude and limiting, Christopher Hampson's choreography dance-lite. So it's not surprising that Eagling has played safe with this latest crack at an evergreen, and ever-forgiving, score.

His Christmas party takes place in a handsome Victorian house, where grandpas do not have inappropriate girlfriends, and children are delighted by gifts no more sophisticated than a wooden sword or a toy lamb. It remains peculiar, though, that a little girl should be so delighted to receive a gadget for cracking nuts. At least Eagling softens this minor awkwardness by having his child-Clara plonk the thing on the floor to dance around it, rather than nurse it like a baby, which always strikes me as absurd.

Peter Farmer's trad designs are nicely unobtrusive, at their best in outdoor scenes such as the Act I Frozen Thames, the party guests arriving on skates in a nod to Ashton's Les Patineurs, complete with pratfalls. Another nice wintry touch is the transformation of the Christmas tree, already grown to double its size, into a frost-covered forest pine, smoothing the transition to the Dance of the Snowflakes.

Those same Snowflakes also bring out the best in Eagling's choreography, challenging the corps in their Swarovski-spangled tutus with testing steps and kaleidoscopic formations, which they bring off with energy and aplomb. Less impressive is his management of the battle scene. While Tchaikovsky orders his musical troops with Borodino-like military acumen (vividly relayed by the excellent ENB orchestra under Gavin Sutherland), Eagling's mice and soldiers are all at sixes and sevens, the adult Clara and her masked Nutcracker partner dithering, panic-stricken, in their midst.

And while it's common to cast separate dancers as the Nutcracker and the Prince, it's rarely so confusing as here, with the two roles switching several times mid-number. What's more, has no one noticed how tricky it is for the Nutcracker to keep his mask on while lifting a girl above his head? It's akin to lifting an 80lb dumb-bell while balancing an After Eight on your nose.

The necessary adjustments shouldn't be hard to make. What may prove more elusive is the element of magic that's at present largely missing. On the night I went, it flared briefly but brightly in Elena Glurdjidze's Sugarplum variation, and Arionel Vargas's excitingly fast travelling turns. But given that Nutcracker is a first ballet for many people, it has to deliver more than a good finale.

Who knew what to expect from Will Tuckett's Faeries at Covent Garden's Linbury Studio, with its promise of spoken narrative, live music, dance and flying puppets? Well, I thought I did, having seen it first in July 2008. But now it's substantially changed, to the extent of having a boy hero (the appealing Femi Oyewole, a lovely mover) in place of a girl, and a rewrite (Rebecca Lenkiewicz).

Meant for children, but with plenty for adults (my 19-year-old baby was enthralled), the action takes place in wartime London, as orphaned siblings Johnny and Beattie arrive at Paddington station to be evacuated. Learning that they are to be parted, Johnny runs away only to find himself benighted in Kensington Gardens where, to his incredulity, he meets a bunch of fairies: tiny, spindly ones; tubby, wrinkly ones; and the evil Dolour, whose head and blackened, wizened limbs can separate at will. Forget Mabel Lucie Attwell: Blind Summit's puppet fairies are scary.

Michael Vale's dusky park with its London skyline is a picture, and Martin Ward's score supplies serious enchantment with clarinet melodies redolent of English pastoral. Best of all is the way each puppet is voiced and manipulated by costumed dancer-actors, yet the tiny stage never feels overcrowded. This is magic that works.

'Nutcracker' to 30 Dec (0871 911 0200); 'Faeries' to 2 Jan (020-7304 4000)

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