When Monica Mason, the Royal Ballet's new boss, spoke to a surprised audience at Covent Garden the other day, slipping modestly through the front curtain just as the show was about to start, everyone thought she was just saying hello. That alone would have been a public relations touch whose efficacy had evaded her predecessor. But what Mason went on to say marked a real sea change in the management style of this lofty establishment.
The occasion was the opening of the company's Nutcracker, and three of the four advertised principals – including Darcey Bussell – weren't dancing. Normally a curt line on the cast sheet is deemed sufficient. But Mason thought fit to make personal apology and detail the reasons (flu, a back injury, an eye infection) why subs had to be brought on. "I know how frustrating it must be," she said, "to book months in advance and pay a lot of money to see a particular dancer..." At a stroke, several hundred people felt much better.
In my view Sugar Plum isn't Darcey's best role anyway, and the encephalitic wig she sports in this production would have Trinny and Susannah in hysterics. Tiny Miyado Yoshida had ditched hers and stuck her head in a bucket of glitter instead – the one brash touch in a production (design by Julia Trevelyan Oman) that breathes cultured restraint. Knickerbockered children unwrap presents from muslin, grandpa rides a Biedermeier bath chair, even the set for the Kingdom of Sweets turns out to be a replica of a spun-sugar table decoration from the 1830s.
Peter Wright's production is a pleasure in all respects, offering great brimming eyefuls of dance interest in all the set pieces and adding piquancy to the story by hinting at how Drosselmeyer's young soldier nephew came to be turned into a Christmas present in the first place. In the cast I saw Jonathan Howells made a hugely likeable consort-cum-sideboard adornment; Iohna Loots a sweet but one-dimensional Clara. The best thing about Miyako Yoshida (apart from her impeccable technique – sometimes too secure to be exciting) is that she brought Ivan Putrov into play as her Prince: gorgeous of line, feathery of jump, but still some way to go as a partner. His unisons with Yoshida simply weren't.
Wright styles his choreography as "after Lev Ivanov", standard practice given that little is known of the original 1892 steps – the Act II pas de deux, at a push, but barely anything else. So I was fascinated to see that Konstantin Tatchkine – whose St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is currently on a sapping 18-venue UK tour – credits choreography in his production to Ivanov, tout court. This despite the fact that this Nutcracker tweaks two acts into three and adds a full 10 minutes of completely new Snow Queen material, set to a Tchaikovsky orchestral suite from elsewhere.
As with all Russian companies, you go expecting great dancing, not great production values. In this case the designs are at least pretty and cheerful – impressive, too, given that the present tour alternates Nutcracker with three other ballets in theatres of wildly varying scale. What distinguishes the production as a whole is its confident disregard of any development in performing style since the heyday of Tsar Nicholas. When characters converse, they mime without moving their lips. When they enter a room, they waft one hand as if to say "let us walk awhile in this pleasant nook". A clock strikes, and every last party guest turns to look at it.
Russian audiences expect and enjoy these archaisms. It takes a novice British spectator about an hour to decide whether they find it charming or risible. Whichever, the performing style tends to have a distancing effect which only Irina Kolesnikova, the tall, commanding Clara, managed to break through by means of an open, lovely face and sunlit dance technique. The best things in this very Russian Nutcracker happen in the feisty national dances at the end: a terrific Spanish duo, a Russian dance that by rights should have been accompanied by smashing vodka glasses, and in Svetlana Markova's snaky solo, the most exotic and erotic Arabian dance you'll ever see.
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