The Royal Ballet's Nutcracker is 25 years old this year, and still sparklingly sweet. Peter Wright has adjusted his production over the years, but it's kept its period warmth. On this first night, the cast was led by audience favourite Miyako Yoshida and new star Steven McRae, both at their best.
This is Yoshida's last season with the Royal Ballet. She joined the organisation in 1984, the same year Wright created this Nutcracker. After a decade as reigning ballerina of Birmingham Royal Ballet, she transferred to the London company. She's always been happiest in classical repertory. The Nutcracker's Sugar Plum Fairy brings out her clear line and porcelain delicacy.
Yoshida's dancing is light and exact. Here, she steps from pose to pose like someone walking serenely on eggshells – not a crack in sight. She spins crisply through her turns, and simply stops at the end of them. The theatrical impact comes from the fact that she doesn't need flourishing gestures: fireworks through understatement. McRae's dancing is bigger and bolder. He bounds into the air, or whips exuberantly through turns. They're well-matched: the scale of his movement makes a nice contrast to Yoshida's, while they're exuberantly in unison during the coda.
Iohna Loots is lively as the young heroine Clara. Her footwork is springy, and she scampers through the story with a sense of wonder. Ricardo Cervera, as the Nutcracker-come-to-life, matches her air of delight. He has a sturdy military bearing in the battle with the mice, with a buoyant jump and gentle partnering. He's delightful in the second-act mime solo, explaining his adventures in Wright's very appealing gestures.
The evening started slowly, with the party scene taking a while to warm up. The children's dances could be more exact, while the magician Drosselmeyer's conjuring tricks are too fussy. Tinkering with his production, Wright has beefed up the role of Drosselmeyer, who now sweeps through both acts flapping his turquoise cloak. He's too dominant a presence in what should be the Sugar Plum Fairy's kingdom. Yet Gary Avis plays the role with authority, grandly summoning magic.
Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs are packed with period detail, from the sleigh in which guests arrive to the lace and ribbons of the party costumes. Her frontcloth shows a picturesque German town, all spires and steep roofs, thick with snow. Bronze-winged angels shepherd the heroine to the Land of Sweets, crossing the stage in an endearing toddling glide. The Sugar Plum Fairy's kingdom looks elegantly edible, with twisted barley-sugar pillars. The production's big transformations are well-handled. The Christmas tree grows and grows, spurred on by Koen Kessels's meaty conducting of Tchaikovsky's score.
The Nutcracker has plenty of soloist roles, from party entertainments to national dances. Standards were very variable on opening night. As the Harlequin and Columbine dolls, Brian Maloney and Bethany Keating suggest the whirring of clockwork, with a vivid mechanical judder to their formal gestures. The national dances sagged, though energy levels went up for the Russian Dance. Cervera leads this number, diving into his final pose with dashing abandon. Helen Crawford made a shaky Rose Fairy, barely on top of her steps.
The corps de ballet were in crisp form for the snowflake waltz. Oman frames this scene with pine trees, snow lying heavily on their branches. Her costumes move beautifully: soft longer tutus in cloudy grey lace. The women arch and sway, fingers fluttering to suggest falling flakes. At a change in the music, snow really does start to fall.
In repertory to 1 January 2010 (020 7304 4000)