Last week, Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko urged Western classical companies to avoid Tchaikovsky’s music, “suspending performances of his works until Russia ceases its bloody invasion”. For ballet companies, the call falls on sympathetic but insensitive ears: Tchaikovsky’s ballets are rare bankers in uncertain times, and London is hosting no less than three major Nutcracker productions this month.
Some evenings, more than 6,000 seats will appeal to fruit and nut lovers. Wayne Eagling’s 2010 production for English National Ballet has its quivering young heroine with hints of adulthood. Eagling features a very young Clara (a Millicent Honor ready for opening night) who transforms into an adult ballerina (Julia Conway) as midnight strikes, dreaming of adventure and romance.
Elegant and danced with confidence (athletic snowflakes and a bewitching waltz of flowers), the production delivers a festive treat. The drawings by the late Peter Farmer are in elegantly understated tones, especially the receding puppet theater sets in the second act.
Emotionally, however, the stakes remain low. Conway doesn’t seem particularly committed to Clara’s journey, but basks in space and speed as the girl imagines coming of age, arms in wide arcs, toes relishing the push for extra height. Still, you never quite know why the masked Nutcracker doll (the dashing Fernando Carratalá Coloma) periodically transforms into the sexy young officer who turned Clara’s head at her family’s party (Francesco Gabriele Frola ).
The party scene is slow to catch fire, despite some lovely details: the awful boys teasing the girls, or Jennie Harrington’s grandmother, carefully navigating like on coasters. Eagling only belatedly bursts into bravery, notably when James Streeter’s unrepentant scene-stealer Mouse King takes the stage with flowery leaps and a twinkling ruby eye. The mouse masks – gruesome skulls with bits of scabby fur – are worthy of nightmares, and the mice flap their legs like the Jets in West Side Story.
The modern Nutcrackers now come with a little less racism, especially in the Chinese dance – although ENB’s pigtails and tilting movements are still bordering on uncomfortable. The production also, thank goodness, dropped Eagleling’s alarmingly perverse Arabian dance. Less confrontational, Ken Saruhashi’s fearless pirouettes are all the rage in the Russian number, while Precious Adams brings fluid ease to Mirilton’s fluty melody.
Most Nutcrackers keep their star dancers in reserve for the grueling final pas de deux. Here, Clara and her hero appear everywhere, so the Sugar Plum duo is a complete classic workout, the culmination of a long night of dancing. Conway and Frola impressively strain every tendon for finesse and panache in extra time. Even better are the orchestra under Gavin Sutherland, digging into every luscious burst and thundering fanfare. Tchaikovsky won’t be leaving the London stages any time soon.
London Coliseumto January 7; ballet.org.uk