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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Nutcracker, Royal Ballet, review: culturally aware, non-distanced, and utterly magical

The celebrated producer-choreographer Peter Wright celebrates his 95th birthday tomorrow, making him five years older than the Royal Ballet itself. It has been said that he is producer first and a choreographer second, and there is something in this: his steps don’t have, say, the Schubertian lyricism of Frederick Ashton, the psycho-sexual abandon of Kenneth MacMillan, or the eye-popping originality of either.

But, when it comes to retelling 19th-century classics with a maximum of narrative clarity and visual élan, a minimum of fuss and a complete absence of auteurish ego, he is in a class of his own – no matter how many times you see them, his various stagings (for both the Royal Ballet and its Birmingham-based sister company) of Giselle, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker all give the strong impression of being quite unimprovable.

And yet, he improves them still. True, it was Scottish Ballet’s culturally aware tweaks to their own Nutcracker – which opens in Edinburgh next week – that made the news recently. But some five years ago, at the age of 90, Wright told me that he had completely overhauled the Act II Chinese Dance in his 1984 Royal Ballet Nutcracker to remove the hugely dated, fingers-in-the-air-Chinamen steps. And Tuesday evening at Covent Garden – the first night of the Royal Ballet’s revival – revealed that the Arabian Dance has now also been reworked by senior répétiteur and principal character artist Gary Avis, but fully overseen by Wright.

Where it used to be three girls and a guy, it is now just one couple. In other words, the now-questionable cliché of a Middle Eastern hareem has gone; and, especially with a duo radiating such simmering poise as Melissa Hamilton and Lukas B Brændsrød, it turns out you don’t miss it one bit.

These changes have subtly updated and enriched what has always been a luxurious production. And, with Wright’s (completely different, even more spectacular) 1990 BRB staging mothballed for a year, it is the current market-leader when it comes to cracking nuts. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s Biedermeier-era designs create a giddy sense of night-before-Christmas excitement, while Wright’s uniquely satisfying through-story means that the whole thing makes (fantastical) sense and ensures a constant sense of forward motion. Similarly astute is the way he gets Clara and the Nutcracker involved in the Act II divertissements, so that they aren’t reduced to being merely passive, gawping spectators.           

In recent years, Avis has made Drosselmeyer – the magician invited to the Stahlbaums’ house on December 24, and the principal motor of the plot – very much his own, and Tuesday’s intelligent, impassioned, flamboyant performance did nothing to dispel this motion. Always “working” (but never making it seem like that), he drives the action on magnificently, besides which no one on earth can swish a turquoise cape or hurl glitter in the air quite like him.

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