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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'The Nutcracker'

by David Mead

December 4, 2008 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

Every year, audiences flock to see Birmingham Royal Ballet’s glorious “Nutcracker”.  And why not, because it seems that no matter how many times you see it, it never fails to weave its magical Christmas spell.  And although there are any number of productions of the ballet around, this Peter Wright version from 1990 remains the most sumptuous and traditional of them all.

Where the Birmingham production really scores is that it has something for everyone.  While there is plenty to keep the youngsters amused and enthralled, the ballet also has a darker side.  After the guests have left the Stahlbaum’s house party, Clara, described as a fifteen-year old ballet student, and always danced here by a member of the company, returns to collect her Nutcracker doll.  But the once happy and noisy lounge now seems strangely eerie.  The mood is enhanced as a chair by the fireplace seemingly turns by itself, revealing Drosselmeyer, no longer smiling and laughing, but serious and foreboding.

The move from reality to make-believe is so smooth you almost don’t realise it is happening.  The transformation scene that follows has to be the best ever.  The Christmas tree doesn’t just grow.  It seems to engulf the whole stage.  Giant rats appear through the now enormous fireplace and do serious battle with the soldiers.  Of course the mood does lighten after the battle as Clara meets her prince and is taken on her fabulous journey.

While artistic director David Bintley has never shied away from giving principal roles to soloists, the long Nutcracker season gives him much more scope to do so.  In this performance, Laëtitia Lo Sardo was a delightful Clara, who looked genuinely excited and happy throughout.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a happier Clara.  And she had good reason.  Kosuke Yamomoto may not be the tallest of dancers, but he looked every inch her perfect prince.  Clara’s delight continued throughout Act II, as she joined in with many of the divertissements with great enthusiasm.  Special mention should go here to Andrea Tredinnick and her consorts in the Arabian Dance; they were quite sublime.

An oddity about “The Nutcracker” is that we don’t get to see the leading ballerina until towards the end.  The wait was worth it.  The delicate Momoko Hirata was every inch the fairy princess, with the precision and technique to match.  There were a couple of heart-in-mouth moments on the lifts, which was odd as Yamomoto had earlier looked very solid indeed, but on the whole they made an excellent couple.

And so Clara awakes, alone once more with just her Nutcracker doll for company.  The spell weaved over the ballet and the audience is broken as we all return to reality.  But the feel good factor remained.  Now it really does start to feel like Christmas.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was directed by guest conductor Koen Kessels, from Belgium.

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