Scottish Ballet’s Nutcracker is a deliberate step away from Christmas sugar. There’s a cartoon edge to Antony McDonald’s designs, while choreographer Ashley Page is determined to make the story darker, even when that goes against the grain of Tchaikovsky’s score. A bright company performance adds a lot of warmth and sparkle.
This Nutcracker was Page’s first Christmas ballet for the company. He shifts the action to Weimar Germany, and reintroduces story elements from ETA Hoffmann’s original story. This makes for a muddle, with plays-within-plays telling the complicated tale of Princess Pirlipat.
The production tries too hard to be creepy. McDonald’s frontcloth shows a reading girl with her head split open to show a nut-like brain. When the snowflakes emerge, they start by pinching and tormenting the heroine, Marie. It’s a touch of spite that doesn’t go anywhere.
There are some clever touches, too. Tchaikovsky’s party music suggests martial boys interrupting gentler girly games. Page recasts it as the clash of adult and child party behaviour. A grown-up conga line breaks through the room, loud and unexpected, made glamorous by McDonald’s lovely 1920s frocks. The family house is elegantly designed, with a witty doll’s house quality that suits a ballet full of toys and sweets. The transformation scenes are efficiently done.
I also like the way Page brings Marie’s family back to dance the divertissements of the second act. At the party, Marie’s sister is given a Spanish shawl as a Christmas present; she then leads the Spanish dance. Their mother, the centre of attention at the party, then vamps it up in the Arabian dance. Marie herself dances the Sugar Plum Fairy. Page makes the most of the company’s smaller forces, and creates fluent setpiece numbers.
At this revival, performances are bold and clean. Christopher Hampson, Scottish Ballet's new artistic director, has inherited a company in good shape, with strong soloists. Sophie Martin is an appealing Marie, wide-eyed in the party scenes, with soft, clear dancing in the grand pas de deux. She’s warmly partnered by Christopher Harrison, who marches boldly as the Nutcracker Prince.
Nathalie Dupouy brings some hard-edged glitter to the mother’s role, while Amy Hadley and Luke Ahmet are dashing in their Spanish dance. The corps dancing is crisp throughout. Richard Honner conducted Scottish Ballet’s own orchestra in an irresistible account of Tchaikovsky’s score, with sparkling rhythms and rich depth of sound.
Edinburgh Festival Theatre from 8-12 January. Box office 0131 529 6000. Further tour dates from www.scottishballet.co.uk