Scottish Ballet's new Nutcracker goes wrong the minute the curtain goes up. Antony McDonald's frontcloth shows a girl with her head split open, her walnut-shaped brain visible. McDonald's drawing is a dud Monty Python cartoon. The image clashes horribly with Tchaikovsky's expectant, frost-in-the-air overture. Ashley Page's dismal production is an attempt to go back the ballet's source, a story by E T A Hoffmann. This is intellectual snobbery: you get more brownie points for being dark and disturbing. His ballet strains for darkness, shouting desperately about how untraditional it is.
The action has been loosely updated from the 19th century to Weimar Germany, which tells you how lazily Page and his team borrow their ideas of decadence. The Stahlbaum family are still having their Christmas party, this time inside adoll's house. Their daughter Marie, danced by Tatiana Loginova, is given a Nutcracker doll by her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Jarkko Lehmus). Again, the Nutcracker turns out to be a prince. Page's additions are a dominatrix governess, maids whose dresses show their knickers, and an awful lot of Hoffmann.
In Hoffmann's Pirlipat subplot a princess gets bitten by the mouse queen, becomes ugly and has to be rescued with the hardest nut in the world. I can't think what Page sees in this story, but he wastes space telling it twice. The Stahlbaums spend most of their party playing it as amateur theatricals. Then we get the extended version in Act Two. All this goes consistently against the music, which precisely evokes the events of the original ballet libretto. Tchaikovsky calls insistently for a party, a growing Christmas tree, a toy battle. Dances and action are exactly cued, and usually ignored.
Page cheats on the Christmas tree, belatedly wheeling on a giant pot. The transformation music goes to Drosselmeyer, who fights with the Mouse Queen then throws Marie around in a duet which has overtones of abuse. Scottish Ballet are marketing this nonsense as a Christmas show, and the theatre was full of children. That's not confounding audience expectations, it's betraying them.
Poor Marie is mistreated throughout - attacked by the dominatrix, yanked about by Drosselmeyer, bullied by the Snowflakes. She even loses her great moment of heroism. In traditional Nutcrackers, she intervenes in the battle to rescue the prince. The musical climax comes, she gets up - and a mouse stabs her, so her prince has to rescue her. Page has an adolescent desire to shock, but evinces no interest in his heroine's coming of age.
Act Two slides back to convention with feeble national dances. Page keeps the traditional Ivanov pas de deux, danced here by Marie and the Nutcracker. It's the only good choreography, but it cruelly exposes Loginova and Oliver Rydout. Poor Scottish Ballet. The company hired Page to boost morale, improve dance standards and overhaul the repertory. He's managed about half of it. Surprisingly, morale seems to be fine - the company look confident in Page's soft- or heeled-shoe dances, doing their best with rotten material. The few dances on pointe reveal dodgy technique. As a director, Page has done some good. As a choreographer, he's a liability.
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