The Nutcracker, Royal Opera House, London

A Cracker without sparkle
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The Independent Culture

Yes, the Nutcracker is back at the Royal Opera House – and several other places besides. Once again, Drosselmeyer shows off his rather disturbing magic, Clara and the Nutcracker do battle with mice, and the Snowflakes dance up a white storm of billows and drifts. Here, just as in other Nutcrackers, the homely, bourgeois normality of a Christmas gathering suddenly lurches into the fantasy of the Kingdom of Sweets, where Clara is transported and entertained. Only the Royal Ballet's season of The Nutcracker, however, marks the return of Darcey Bussell from her retirement into parallel domesticity (as the mother of a baby girl) and her transport back into her fairy-tale career.

Bussell is the company's principal ballerina and, like many stars, her appeal is based partly on a distinctive personality that shines through, whatever she does. Partnered by Jonathan Cope, whose own dancing seemed on a higher level, she held calm balances that counteracted humdrum phrasing in which she apparently listened only to the music's dominant signposts. Her allure comes from a special radiance and an intensely generous smile that seems to come from her heart without any attenuating filter, and the simple serenity of this is perfect for the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The up-and-coming Alina Cojocaru, who played Clara, does not have this individual quality. Indeed, she is the polar opposite, in that she subsumes herself into whatever role she might be playing at the time. Her dancing as Clara serves to create an utterly convincing portrait of a young girl, full of vitality and tender joy; she moves with such unassuming, unflamboyant effortlessness that her superhuman technique almost passes unnoticed. Ivan Putrov as The Nutcracker powered his solos with soaring jumps and a wonderful linear purity, and seems to grow in ability with each performance. Now he just needs to work on the gestural weight and timing of his mime scene, so that it can carry greater force.

Luke Heydon was a charismatic Drosselmeyer, Zenaida Yanowsky brought a refined, rubato finish to her Flower solo and her supporting ensemble was in cohesive form. But even with such performances, you marvel at the half-baked libretto, which no amount of tinkering by the producer Peter Wright can put right. Nutcrackers are usually rescued by the deep melancholic threads that tug at Tchaikovsky's score – except that this time, Jacques Lacombe's conducting flattened everything to a gentle snooze. And usually the ballet offers a visual feast to excite the imagination – except that here Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs manage to be simultaneously lavish and dowdy. The historical detail may be admirably authentic, but the frumpy clothes and drab colours do not make good theatre. Premiered in 1984, this production isn't a patch on Peter Wright's other version for Birmingham Royal Ballet, and deserves the coup de grace.

ROH, London WC2 (020-7304 4000) to 5 January

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