The Nutcracker

Video screen outside the theatre in Birmingham

A recent email and a Christmas card from two of my regular readers reminded me that there has been something of a hiatus: I haven’t posted here for over two months. It was very gratifying to be asked: “when will there be another blog?” Well, here it is. It is about a ballet that is staged around Christmas time, perhaps the most famous ballet in the world. If you are not interested in ballet, you might like to look away now. On the other hand, you might be interested in the story that The Nutcracker ballet is based on and how this magical tale has been rendered as a wonderfully-engaging ballet that is performed in very many places around the world at this time of year. If memory serves, I perhaps initially regarded The Nutcracker as a ballet aimed largely at a very young audience. Whilst there is no doubt that children enjoy it, the ballet includes adult themes and is not as light and fluffy as I originally thought.

My Damascene moment of conversion to a love of ballet rather than indifference to it happened over twenty years ago when my wife, A, finally persuaded me to go to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker. Hitherto, A had gone with a group of friends. On the occasion of my first Nutcracker, I was a long way from the stage in the gallery because I was only able to purchase a late ticket. Although my seat wasn’t ideal for watching dance with my eye conditions, it gave me a wonderful view of the illusion of what happens towards the end of Act I, which I will tell you about later.

The ballet is based on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a story written in 1816 by E. T. A. Hoffmann. In it, young Marie Shahibaum’s favourite Christmas toy, a nutcracker doll, comes alive and defeats the evil Mouse King and whisks her off to a magical kingdom.

The nutcracker doll is apparently – thank you Wikipedia – a doll given at Christmas, whose jaw is strong enough to crack nuts. It is traditionally a figurine of a toy soldier dressed in a red tunic. In the 17th century, well before Hoffmann wrote his story, this kind of doll was a symbol of good health or good fortune.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that Hoffmann’s story attracted choreographers of the day. It comprised many elements that would attract a dance-maker: a strong story, fantasy, a battle, childhood dreams, and family life, to name but a few of the main themes.

In 1892, the Russian Composer Peter Tchaikovsky together with choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov turned Alexander Dumas’ adaptation of Hoffmann’s story into a ballet. Various versions have been performed regularly since its rather less than well-received debut performance.

The production that A and I have seen several times is the performance given by the Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), which is based on Sir Peter Wright’s choreography created in 1984 for The Royal Ballet (now based in Covent Garden in London). The Royal Ballet’s touring company, known as Sadler’s Wells, moved to the Hippodrome in Birmingham in 1990. Consequently, Sir Peter Wright is associated with both ballet companies. He celebrated his 90th birthday last November and is still very much hands-on at Covent Garden and at the BRB. A TV programme broadcast on Christmas Eve showed him developing new steps for the Chinese Dance that is in Act II of The Nutcracker and another TV programme broadcast after Christmas, in commemoration of his birthday and long career as a choreographer, showed him rehearsing The Nutcracker for the BRB.

Sir Peter Wright’s choreography brought the ballet closer to the original that was performed in the 1890s: it is this version that both The Royal Ballet and BRB perform at Christmas time.

The ballet opens with a family scene around the Christmas tree, under which presents are piled high. There are lots of opportunities for the children who attend the BRB school to attract the attention of ballet masters and compete for selection to dance the children’s’ parts.

The central character of Marie Shahibaum in the story is known as Clara in the ballet; she is probably aged about 15. Clara is on stage for most of the ballet: a demanding role for a young dancer. Her guardian, Herr Drosselmeyer, a magician and toy maker arrives at the family gathering and gives out presents to the children and a nutcracker doll to Clara; she is instantly enchanted by the doll and dances while holding it before she places it under the tree. Drosselmeyer brings a number of toys to life and they dance for the benefit of all the guests.

When the dancing and celebrating is over, the children (leave the stage) and go up a flight of stairs to bed. Clara steals back to the darkened room to have another look at her beloved nutcracker doll. The clock over the fireplace strikes twelve and the toys come to life again, this time they are rather intimidating towards Clara. Drosselmeyer shows himself from his hiding place on a high armchair and he begins to dispense his magic again. At this point in the ballet, the character of Drosselmeyer is often portrayed as rather sinister and, together with his toys, frightens Clara as the room begins to expand. The fireplace becomes huge and the Christmas tree grows upwards until one of the presents that was beneath it, a box of soldiers, turns into a box of real soldiers. An army of rats rushes out of the fireplace and engage the soldiers in a balletic battle.

The illusion of everything becoming larger was, for my first Nutcracker a complete surprise and delight, particularly as I was sitting a long way from the stage when the fantasy was more complete. These days, I prefer to sit in the front row (or near to the front) where I can appreciate the dancing to the full and from where the changes in the room are rather more evident but no less magical.

The nutcracker doll, now a handsome solider dressed in a red tunic, is wounded by the king of the rats. Clara whacks the rat king on the head with her shoe and his rat soldiers carry him off. The stage goes dark and Clara runs over to where the wounded soldier is slumped on the ground.

The Nutcracker slowly recovers as Clara stands over him distraught before Tchaikovsky’s music swells and swirls as Clara and the Nutcracker dance a wonderful pas de deux, literally a ‘step of two’ or a dance for two. This emotionally-charged pas de deux is amplified by Tchaikovsky’s stirring music and is in complete contrast to Clara’s earlier dance scenes when she is seen as a young teenager. Her pas de deux with the Nutcracker always strikes me as Clara’s rite of passage to becoming a woman. I don’t know for sure but I suspect that Sir Peter Wright choreographed this sublime pas de deux with this in mind. Towards the end of the pas de deux, Clara spins away from the Nutcracker and hurtles around the stage in a series of turns and leaps – I believe they are called jetés – in an expression of sheer joy. It is a declaration of love that never fails to make my chest tighten, my throat constrict and my whole body tingle. The combination of music and dance is impassioned and powerfully moving.

Clara is then whisked away to the magical land of sweets where several dances in the form of divertissements, as they are referred to in a ballet, represent sweets from around the world. This part of Act II provides the opportunity for small groups of dancers to entertain Clara. Drosselmeyer organises the various dances and Clara joins in all but one of them.

Drosselmeyer is not as frightening as he was in the earlier part of the ballet and seems to revert to his role of Clara’s guardian, albeit in command of his magical powers. Tyrone Singleton, who took the role of Drosselmeyer in the performance we saw before Christmas, was more playful than other Drosselmeyers that we have seen in the past.

The climax of Act II sees Clara realise her childhood dream of becoming a ballet dancer when Drosselmeyer turns her into the Sugar Plum Fairy, a role for a different dancer. Although her appearance is relatively short, at about thirteen minutes, the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a very demanding one. She dances with the Nutcracker who reappears as the Nutcracker Prince.

Clara’s transition into a beautiful ballet dancer is all too soon over. She becomes Clara again and the Nutcracker carries her to the centre of the family’s living room, which has reverted to its normal size, and lays her gently down. It is still midnight as Clara stirs and wakes up. She rushes to the foot of the Christmas tree, picks up the nutcracker doll and holds him high.

The end: curtains, huge cheers and prolonged applause ensue.

I hope that all of my readers had a wonderful Christmas: I wish you all the very best for the New Year.

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