Review: English National Ballet - The Nutcracker - London Coliseum

Performance: 16 December 2015 - 10 January 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 18 December 2015

English National Ballet - Shiori Kase as Clara and Cesar Corrales as Nephew in Nutcracker'. Photo: Laurent Liotardo

Performance reviewed: 16 December

I stand second-in-line to no-one in my admiration for English National Ballet under the inspiring, energetic leadership of Tamara Rojo, and so it pains me to say that this London opening night of Wayne Eagling’s Nutcracker did not fill me with the magic I have come to expect from this vibrant company. Both the production and the performance lacked the consistency required for a convincing staging of this dream-filled ballet.

In truth, Eagling’s production has been flawed since it was hurriedly introduced to ENB’s repertoire, back in 2010. Peter Farmer’s set designs evoke both a cinnamon-infused Christmas feel, notably in the opening and closing vistas of a snow-covered house overlooking a frozen pond, and the exciting reminiscence of a “Phileas Fogg” or “Wizard of Oz” journey in a hot air balloon that transports characters and audience alike across the time zone of an interval. In terms of dating the action by costume, we seem to bounce randomly back and forth through the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a peculiar Georgian/Victorian potpourri. Designs for the indoor scenes – both at the Christmas party of Act 1 and inside the puppet theatre of Act 2 – are surprisingly lacklustre.

Though altered since the premiere, the Arabian dance remains an unfortunate oddity with choreography that seems unrelated to Tchaikovsky’s music with a whip-cracking sultan and his slaves appearing as interlopers from some other ballet. But, for me, the most troublesome device is having two dancers perform the roles of both Nutcracker and Nephew. The traditional idea of the story is that the magician Drosselmeyer’s nephew has been imprisoned inside the nutcracker by the curse of the mouse king. Here, there is no such curse or link: instead, the young Clara becomes so infatuated with the Nephew that – in her dreams – he somehow becomes the embodiment of her heroic soldier doll.

This duality requires a kind of balletic “excuse me” with the two dancers portraying the Nutcracker and the Nephew continually inter-changing with the now grown-up Clara. This is especially irksome in the gorgeous little pas de deux at the end of Act 1, with an annoying interruption during the course of this beautiful music when Drosselmeyer leads the injured Nutcracker offstage and returns with his nephew, while Clara fills time with a meaningless brief solo. This effectively means that the duet is actually a pas de trois with the Nephew crudely replacing his masked counterpart near the end. Added to the sudden transition of Clara from little girl to grown woman it makes for some unnecessary confusion.

My biggest bugbear, however, has to be the nutcracker soldier’s mask. In actuality, there is nothing about the mechanical doll or its human representation that suggests it/he is actually a nutcracker. But, why on earth require a dancer to perform in a mask that clearly impairs his vision. The dancer so unfortunately encumbered often has to awkwardly readjust the mask’s position and it was no different here with James Forbat having to do so at least twice. I don’t blame the dancer because I can’t imagine how awful it must be to dance in this sweaty contraption. Get rid of it, I say, for it adds absolutely no value whatsoever, either to a dancer who can’t see or be seen (or at least be recognised) or to a confused audience.

Despite these reservations about the production, it was considerably enlivened by exquisite dancing. And this begins with perhaps the youngest cast member, because Cheryl Heung was a little star as Clara the child: so expressive with graceful elegant dancing and purposeful acting that belied her youth. Together with William Darby, playing her cheeky brother, Freddie, they were a great credit to the Tring Park School.

The corps de ballet of snowflakes provided harmonious lines and movement patterns with close precision in their unity of flowing movement. Ksenia Ovsyanick danced with lyrical technique and intuitive musicality as Clara’s elder sister Louise, transported by Clara’s dream into the Mirliton solo; there was an absorbing Spanish dance given by Adela Ramirez, Crystal Costa and Fernando Bufalá; and Yonah Acosta ignited some virtuoso fireworks in leading the Russian ensemble.

Performing as the grown-up Clara and the nephew, Shiori Kase and Cesar Corrales, rose to the challenge of Eagling’s complex choreography in the grand pas de deux variations. Clara’s solo is an especially complex agenda of steps, balances, pirouettes and changes of direction, which Kase performed with charm and the special delight of a steely, yet understated, technique.

By contrast, Corrales is everything but understated. This exciting young Mexican dancer – recently nominated for the Emerging Artist Award by the Critics’ Circle – has an immense athletic ability in his jumps and spins, delivered with ebullient panache and near faultless technique. When he walked into position for the final duet in the coda (the last movement of the pas de deux) it was a slow, deliberate, unashamedly arrogant strut, as if to say “look at me, and what I just did”.

As a partnership, however, they lacked chemistry when dancing together and it must be said that Corrales had a difficult night as a partner. The absence of smooth partnering skills began when he came into the aforementioned Act one pas de deux mid-way through and he never recovered from this rough-edged beginning. He looked uncomfortable with lifts, he barely caught Kase’s jumps onto his shoulder and I’m sorry to say that he appeared to be intently operating some kind of machinery, whilst worrying about health & safety implications, whenever supporting his ballerina’s pirouettes. This inadequacy was evident elsewhere in a similar lack of fluid partnering by other young male dancers and a blatant exception to this generality came when Fabian Reimair – as Drosselmeyer – partnered Ovsyanick in the closing bars of the Mirliton dance. His experience and confidence as a partner was a welcome beacon of excellence amongst a general sea of uncertainty.

I must say that this is not just a problem for these young dancers or this company. It seems to me that we have entered an era where virtuoso dance skills are being valued much more than the fundamentals. Audiences clamour to see huge jumps and fast, centred pirouettes and there are a few young men, such as Corrales, with the rare talent to capture that excitement. But, ballet is about much more, and while we wait for the blistering male variation, we need to also be convinced by the strength and security of the partnered duet that precedes it. My first thought was that the younger dancers are not strong enough in the upper body but I believe that it is much more to do with technique, than strength. It seems – from the outside, looking in – that pas de deux classes may have become an irrelevance to the job.

As a postscript to this review, let me add that I also saw the second-night cast, in which many of the concerns I had at the opening night were no longer evident. I was again impressed by the potential of young Miss Heung and the biggest difference was the quite superb grand pas de deux by Erina Takahashi and Yonah Acosta. Takahashi is a ballerina in her absolute prime, using every aspect of her considerable experience to squeeze the very best out of difficult choreography. Acosta was not unlike Corrales a couple of years ago, full of coltish enthusiasm and athletic fire, but susceptible to inconsistencies in his partnering. Now a fully-fledged Principal, he has clearly worked hard at developing confidence in this most unfashionable aspect of dancing skill. With the coaching strength of Irek Mukhamedov – one of the best male partners of the modern era – I am optimistic that the next generation of young male dancers at the ENB will achieve a similar transformation.

Continues at the London Coliseum until 10 January

Main photo: Shiori Kase as Clara and Cesar Corrales as Nephew in Nutcracker. Photo: Laurent Liotardo

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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