Review: The Nutcracker

The opening scenes of the Scottish Ballet’s The Nutcracker – set to Tchaikovsky’s timeless musical score – invoke a sense of breathless excitement.  Inside the Stahlbaum family home – a house which folds across the stage rather like a dollhouse – there is dancing on tables, gifting of toys, a glistening tree: the Christmas party within is a dazzling affair.

Principal ballerina Sophie Martin is excellent in the lead role of Marie, the youngest child of the Stahlbaum family, who is drawn to the Nutcracker doll.  Her shy, yawning movements convey a sense of curiosity and vulnerability, making Marie an engaging heroine to root for.  Indeed, every dancer here is believable as the characters they embody.  From the strong, angular movements of the Governess – who is later transfigured as the evil ‘Mouserink’, performed by Diana Loosmore – to the light, quick skips of those playing children, to the slick, more sensual movements of the adults: each element of choreography plays an active role in storytelling.

While there is a real sense of joyful festivity and humour in these opening scenes, darker threads are also woven in.  The midnight scenes – where Marie dreams about the Nutcracker, played by Adam Blyde, coming to life – are almost psychedelic in nature; dreams and reality are continually mixed and nothing is what it appears to be.

Perhaps the best example of this sense of ambiguity, of darkness, is in the character of Drosselmeyer, played by Tama Barry.  Drosselmeyer is godfather to the Stahlbaum children, and the one who brings Marie the Nutcracker doll.  Rather than interpreting this character as an intense, good-hearted uncle-figure – as he is often portrayed in other productions of the ballet – Barry’s Drosselmeyer is more awkward, more nuanced.  His purple and red suit, complete with mad-professor hair, set him apart from the other adults who are chic in their shimmering 20’s costumes.  His relationship with Marie is unusual.  Their dances together are soft, and his movements almost romantic; there is an air of wistfulness about him, such as when he stares sadly on as Marie falls in love with the Nutcracker.  At times, his character seems simply protective, while at other times, he seems slightly sinister – such as when, dressed in a coat of black feathers, he crawls towards Marie while she lies sleeping.  His character – along with other original interpretations of the music – adds an air of mystery to the familiar fairytale.

While there is a sense of intimacy in Act One – with the audience almost secretly looking in on the festivities of a family, into the imagination of a young girl – things start to change in the second act.  Marie, the Nutcracker and Drosselmeyer are off-stage for most of this act, and soon the dances begin to feel more self-conscious.  Elements of classical ballet become more prominent: instead of loose, 20’s style costumes, a number of the dancers wear tutus; instead of fluid, expressive movements, the dancing becomes more precise, involving a lot more pointe technique.

Tchaikovsky’s musical score conjures different nations around the world – including China, Spain, and Russia – and, while the choreography is still brilliant, the narrative drive – the story – has all but vanished.  The dancers seem to step out of their former characters and turn their movements out towards the audience.  Rather than dancing from inside a story, they look out at the theatre, they perform, and at the end of each piece, they bow.  There is still a ‘magical’ feel about the ballet – the costumes are particularly stunning in this act, for example, especially the poppy-inspired tutus in the Waltz of the Flowers – but something seems to be missing.

This sense of something-lost is even present in the ‘Grande Pas de Deux’ at the end, where the Nutcracker, now a Prince, and Marie, now transformed into a Princess, dance together.  Both dressed in white, they are striking onstage: creating elegant lines, with Sophie Martin effortlessly spinning into pirouette after pirouette.  However, in spite of the beauty of their movements, there is no real sense of storytelling here.  All sense of character and emotion seem to have vanished, and instead, the audience simply find themselves watching a dance, albeit a very lovely one.

While the loss of narrative towards the end of the ballet is disappointing, the skill of the dancers, the music, the costumes, the memory of the dreamlike first act among other things still make this an evening of real delights.  It is a performance that continues to dance inside your head, long after leaving the theatre behind.


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