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Is this ballet for you?

Go if: you want to treat your kids, godchildren, nieces and nephews or even perhaps the kid in you.

Skip if: Bah humbug!

Dream Cast

Sugar Plum Fairy: any ballerina who can do proper gargouillades

Alina Cojocaru as The Sugar Plum Fairy. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Background

The Nutcracker is a major example of a balletic twist of fate. The very thing critics and audiences objected to at the time of its premiere 117 years ago – its appeal to children – is what turned it into such a bankable classic. From your local end of the year ballet school presentation to the most lavish productions for the big companies and every kind of thing in-between (even Nutcracker on Ice), Christmas season has now become saturated with Nutcrackers everywhere.

Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the same Imperial Theatre Director who had brought together Tchaikovsky and Petipa for his ambitious project The Sleeping Beauty had imagined a new ballet to be based on the book L’Histoire d’un Casse Noisette by Alexandre Dumas père. This was a story he knew from his time in Paris as a diplomat and which Dumas himself had adapted from Ernst Theodor Amadeus (E.T.A.) Hoffmann‘s Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) from 1816.

Vsevolozhsky managed to secure Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s collaboration again but Tchaikovsky only agreed to write for The Nutcracker on the basis that he would also be able to work on his opera Iolanta. Because Petipa had fallen ill he ended up working mostly with the choreographer’s assistant Lev Ivanov. Although Tchaikovsky’s music was appreciated (but again thought too symphonic for a ballet) the production was criticized, mainly for the lack of logic relationship between its two acts. The Nutcracker received only 14 performances initially. Some critics thought there was not enough complexity in the story and “no subject whatever”. To critics and audiences alike, the Nutcracker was a luxurious piece but one that was “made for children”.

The Nutcracker in the West

Although it was not considered much of a hit in Russia The Nutcracker kept being performed throughout the theatre year (at that time it was not yet heavily associated with the Christmas season). In the West, however, it boomed. First seen in scattered pieces, with the Arabian dance transplanted into the Ballets Russes’s Sleeping Princess and with Anna Pavlova‘s take on The Waltz of the Snowflakes, London audiences soon got the first full version.

Most versions have some links back to the original but by the time they were staged much of the choreography had been lost and/or changed. This meant that Ivanov’s original Waltz of the Snowflakes had to be reconstructed from notations (presumably incomplete) made in St. Petersburg before WWI.  Likewise, Ivanov’s Grand Pas De Deux in which Prince Coqueluche (Koklush) spread out a veil gently gliding the Sugar Plum Fairy as if she were on ice (or icing sugar) has been revised or scrapped in most versions although Balanchine’s Nutcracker still pays homage to it.

Elizabeth Harrod as Clara and Alastair Marriott as Drosselmeyer, in The Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Johan Persson/ ROH ©

Perhaps the biggest downside to so many different Nutcracker versions over the years has been the progressive watering down of E.T.A Hoffmann’s original story and its aura of mystery, rooted in the German Romantic movement. Hoffmann’s tales often include fantastic elements coexisting with folklore (another example being Coppélia) which are sometimes ignored in favour of the ballet’s child friendly aspects. However, some versions of the ballet seek to preserve the Romantic layers and its mystery, notably Nureyev’s version for the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) as well as Sir Peter Wright‘s for The Royal Ballet and for Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Versions

The first complete Nutcracker was staged in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, based on choreographic notation by Nicholas Sergeyev. Ten years later saw the first US version by San Francisco Ballet (1944) and another ten years brought George Balanchine’s blockbusting version for NYCB (1954), now staged every year by several US ballet companies. By the 1980s, 300 separate productions were touring the US.

Sir Peter Wright’s versions

Sir Peter’s 1984 version of The Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet, still performed by the Company, stays close to Hoffmann’s original tale. It emphasises Drosselmeyer’s mission to find a young girl – Clara – who can break the curse imposed by the Mouse King on his nephew Hans Peter and thus restore him to human form. References to Nuremberg and German Christmas traditions are present in the settings, with a kingdom of marzipan featured in Act 2. Equally successful is his 1990 version for The  Birmingham Royal Ballet, this one closer to the Russian tradition of having Clara double up as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but with a slight twist: it is Clara’s alter ego ballerina doll who turns into the Fairy.

Jamie Bond as The Prince in Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

The Odd Ones

Nureyev’s production for POB has a clear emphasis on symbology and the subconscious: Clara wanders down the stairs at midnight to find her family and friends turned into rats and bats while Drosselmeyer transforms into a handsome prince.

Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s 1976 popular version for ABT turns the Christmas dream into a coming-of-age tale. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy nor Prince Koklush, the focus being Clara’s encounter with the Nutcracker Prince as orchestrated by her Godfather Drosselmeyer. As the ballet ends so does Clara’s fantasy.

More recently the ballet has seen a flurry of ironic takes. In Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut (1991) the Stahlbaums are a suburban family with a fake Christmas tree, bad hairdos and too much to drink, the second act Arabian divertissement being a trio for oil sheiks. In Matthew Bourne‘s Nutcracker! (1992) Clara lives in an orphanage run by Mr. and Mrs. Dross and tries to win the heart of the hunky Nutcracker prince.

Story

These myriad versions make it impossible for us to list all the differences and twists in the various Nutcrackers around the world but the storyline is more or less always the same:

Characters

  • Herr Drosselmeyer
  • Clara (or Marie, or Masha)
  • Nutcracker Prince (or Hans Peter)
  • Sugar Plum Fairy
  • Her Prince Cavalier (Prince Koklush)

Act 1

A Christmas party is taking place at the Stahlbaums’, parents to Clara and Fritz. Drosselmeyer brings his goddaughter Clara a gift of a nutcracker doll.  Children being children, Fritz eventually grabs and breaks the Nutcracker doll much to Clara’s dismay. Drosselmeyer fixes it restoring peace amongst the youngsters. Guests depart and Clara suddently sees herself surrounded by a fantasy world, where the Christmas tree grows giant and dolls and soldiers come to life to battle with the mice who have also grown to Clara’s own size. She sees her Nutcracker doll leading the battle and being attacked by the Mouse King. She throws her slipper at the Mouse, liberating the Nutcracker who turns into a Prince. They embark on a magical journey, their first stop being the Land of Snow where snow flakes waltz around them in patterns, as if blown by the wind.

Act 2

Clara and her Nutcraker Prince arrive at the Kingdom of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Cavalier. They are invited to watch a series of divertissements representing exotic travels and various different sweets: Chocolate (Spanish dance) Coffee (Arabian dance) Tea (Chinese dance), the Russian Trépak (Cossacks), Mother Ginger & the polichinelles (in certain versions), along with the dance of the little pipes/Mirlitons and the Waltz of the Flowers. The celebrations close with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince dancing a grand pas de deux. The curtain usually falls on Clara waking up back at home wondering whether it was all just a dream.

Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov in The Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Music

Tchaikovsky died in 1893 not knowing what a big success his work would achieve. He had been burned twice before writing for ballet (with Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty) so he was less than enthusiastic to do so again but Vsevolozhsky convinced him on the basis that he would also be able to write the opera Iolanta which interested him more and which premiered on the same day as the ballet. Paradoxically, his Nutcracker score became, over the years, the more celebrated of the two works.

Having received the joint commission, Tchaikovsky started on The Nutcracker writing to his brother Anatoly in March 1891 that “the main thing is to get rid of the ballet; as to the opera I am so fascinated by it that if I could have two weeks of peace I would be sure to finish it on schedule”. As he embarked on a trip to Berlin and Paris en route to an American tour that same year he heard of the death of his sister Sasha.  Perhaps for this reason a hint of sadness  and nostalgia permeates The Nutcracker‘s haunting score.

He finished composing the ballet on 6 July 1891 having added to it a novelty instrument which he had bought during his tour in Paris, the celesta, which he used to give The Sugar Plum Fairy her characteristic sound of heavenly bells.

An essential Nutcracker Spotify/Ipod playlist should include the below tracks:

Op.71 – Overture
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 1 The Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 2 March
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 6 Clara and the Nutcracker
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 7 The Nutcracker Battles the Army of the Mouse King
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 8 In the Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 9 Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 10 The Magic Castle on the Mountain of Sweets
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12a Character Dances: Chocolate (Spanish Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12b Character Dances: Coffee (Arabian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12c Character Dances: Tea (Chinese Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12d Character Dances: Trépak (Russian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12e Character Dances: Dance of the Reed Pipes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12f Character Dances: Polchinelle
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 13 Waltz of the Flowers
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14a Pas de deux: Intrada
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14b Pas de deux: Variation I (Tarantella)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14c Pas de deux: Variation II (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14d Pas de deux: Coda
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 15 Final Waltz and Apotheosis

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Original Designs: M.I. Botcharov with K. Ivanov wit costumes by I.A. Vsevolozhsky
Original Cast: Antoinetta dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerd as Prince “Koklush” (also known as Prince Coqueluche or Orgeat), Nikolay Legat as The Nutcraker Prince and Timofei Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer.
Premiere: 6 December 1892 Mariinsky (also credited as 17 December 1892)

Where to see it in the UK

The Royal BalletThe Nutcracker is in repertoire at the Royal Opera House from November 26 to January 1st. For booking details visit the ROH website.

Birmingham Royal BalletThe Nutcracker is in repertoire at the Birmingham Hippodrome from November 27 to December 13. For booking details visit The Birmingham Hippodrome’s website.

English National BalletThe Nutcracker, with choreography by Christopher Hampson, is in repertoire at the London Coliseum from December 16 to January 3. For booking details visit the ENO website.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Royal Opera House Nutcracker podcast
  2. The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker Programme Notes.
  3. The Nutcracker History by Gerald Charles. Ballet Met Notes for The Nutcracker, November 1998 [link]
  4. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker/Swan Lake/The Sleeping Beauty Highlights. Naxos Recording with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. [link]
  5. The Refined Product of a Great Artist: Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta by Hugo Shirley. Opera Holland Park. [link]
  6. Nuts, Sluts, Rats and Bats by Judith Mackrell. The Guardian, December 2001. [link]
  7. How to Design the Nutcracker by Ismene Brown. The Arts Desk [link]
  8. Breaking Pointe: The Nutcracker is a Gift that Takes More than it Gives by Sarah Kaufman. The Washington Post [link]
  9. Wikipedia entry on The Nutcracker [link]

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As the season kicks off  Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), one of the UK’s top three ballet companies, celebrates its 20th anniversary as a Birmingham resident. Over the years it has evolved from being the Royal Ballet‘s “touring arm” into shaping its own style: a mix of core repertoire alongside new original full-length narrative ballets, showing a degree of experimentation and risk taking uncommon to big ballet companies. Here we look at the past and present of this unique company:

History

As the name indicates, the Birmingham Royal Ballet is historically linked to the Royal Ballet. They both originated in 1926 when Ninette de Valois founded the Academy of Choreographic Art, her first step towards creating a ballet company with a supporting school. Through Lilian Baylis and her theatres, The Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic, de Valois found a way to give her company a base and by 1931 she had established the Vic-Wells Ballet and Vic-Wells Ballet School at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Moira Shearer in Sadlers Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

Moira Shearer in Sadler's Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

In 1939 both company and school lost the “Vic” tags to better align with their base at Sadler’s Wells, but the subsequent destruction of Sadler’s Theatre during the war dislodged the company and forced it to become a touring troupe known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The end of the war saw the company’s return to the refurbished theatre until its split into two in 1946: the main company and school moving to a new home at the Royal Opera House (eventually becoming the Royal Ballet) and a smaller sister company – the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet –  created to handle touring performances under the supervision of artistic director John Field.

This sister company would later become the Birmingham Royal Ballet but at this point it continued to change and accrue different names. From 1955 to 1977, having left its base at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre to perform in theatres all around the country, it was known as the Royal Ballet Touring Company. A Royal Charter had been granted to recognize the company’s independence and status but it still functioned as a touring “branch” of the Royal Ballet. By 1970 the company had effectively regained its base at Sadler’s Wells so in 1977, with the arrival of Sir Peter Wright as artistic director, it was renamed Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.

The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet finally became the Birmingham Royal Ballet when it relocated to Birmingham in 1990, following an invitation by the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre and the Birmingham City Council. Peter Wright continued as their Artistic Director until 1995. He was succeeded by choreographer David Bintley, who put his focus into creating an independent company which could be dissociated from the Royal Ballet and in 1997 the BRB finally became independent from the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Despite this separation, the company still shares a common repertoire with the latter and many of its dancers have emerged from the Royal Ballet School, although the BRB now has its own associated dance academy in the Elmhurst School of Dance.

In addition to performing at home, the BRB regularly visits some of the most important stages around the UK such as the London Coliseum, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Symphony Hall, The Lowry, etc. It also continues to increase its international presence after successful tours around the US, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRBs The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRB's The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Style and Repertoire

Given their shared origins the BRB style has common elements with the Royal Ballet’s: in their repertoire, with plenty of narrative ballets, and in dancers who are able to emphasize drama and theatricality when performing those. AD David Bintley has furthered the company’s range by continuously creating or commissioning new pieces, with particular focus on the difficult genre of narrative ballet. He has created ten full-length story based ballets (with half of them having been created for BRB and most of them still in repertoire), of which the most successful have captivated audiences and continue to attract  new ones. In contrast, the Royal Ballet’s investment in full-length original commissions has been slimmer, the last one having been Twyla Tharp‘s 1995 A Worldly Wise and the next one, Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, currently announced and planned for the 2011 season.

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintleys Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintley's Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

In an ever more globalized ballet world, BRB seems to be  creating its own history, developing its own character. It has shown to be a daring company which is capable of attracting regular audiences with original works. Instead of bringing predictable classics (e.g. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.) on  tours around the country, they aim to keep a balance with many works by the great 20th century choreographers, such as Ashton, Balanchine, Cranko, de Valois, MacMillan, Robbins and Tudor. With such a pick’n’mix, it is no wonder  their fanbase keeps growing.

The Dancers

Many well known Royal Ballet names began their careers with the BRB: from Nadia Nerina and Lynn Seymour to Darcey Bussell, Miyako Yoshida and Leanne Benjamin.

Through its association with the Elmhulst School of Dance, BRB aims to develop its own talent to feed into the company’s ranks, but plenty of dancers come from other vocational schools such as the Royal Ballet School or internationally, as is the case with Principal dancers Nao Sakuma (Japan), Chi Cao (China), Elisha Willis (Australia), César Morales (Chile) and Ambra Vallo (Italy). Given its continuous flux of new ballets, the company attracts many dancers interested in having roles created on them.

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes in The Nutcracker. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Videos

Birmingham Royal Ballet has a solid online presence, with plenty of feature and reheasal videos on their website. Here are links to some examples:

  • David Bintley’s Beauty and the Beast with Nao Sakuma as Belle [link]
  • Robert Parker and Elisha Willis in David Bintley’s Cyrano [link]
  • Ashton’s The Two Pigeons Rehearsal with Nao Sakuma and Robert Parker [link]
  • Nao Sakuma rehearses Bintley’s Sylvia [link]
  • Alexander Campbell and Natasha Oughtred rehearse the Nutcracker pas de deux [link]
  • Natasha Oughtred and Joseph Caley rehearse Ashton’s The Dream, under the careful eye of former Royal Ballet Stars,  Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Birmingham Royal Ballet. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian, April 2009 [link]
  3. David Bintley and the BRB: A Tradition of Niceness by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, April 2000 [link]
  4. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Website [link]
  5. Elmhurst and Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]

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