Dance: Birmingham Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker at the 02 Arena

If it’s Christmas, it must be Nutcracker time. It’s hard to imagine a time when this most ubiquitous of Christmas ballets wasn’t popular – especially this year, when it seems impossible to move in the capital without tripping over a Sugar Plum. Sir Peter Wright’s loving reconstruction of the Imperial original has already been doing brisk festive business over at the Opera House; now his 1991 production for the Birmingham Royal Ballet comes to the cavernous confines of the O2 for Londoners to enjoy.


Nutcracker at Birmingham Hippodrome 2011 from Rob Lindsay on Vimeo.

Ballet in big venues is not a wholly new thing – last summer’s Royal Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet at this very venue was warmly received – and yet there’s no mistaking the change in atmosphere the move to an arena space brings. The hollowness of the space is moderated to some extent by the wise provision of a proscenium arch framing the action; but there’s a noticeably gaping distance between the stage and almost every seat in the house, not entirely compensated for by the concert-style screen above the action.

Watching on the screen highlights a key problem with scale and detachment. The work is beautifully captured by former dancer Ross MacGibbon, who picks out helpful details on the stage while keeping the overall flow of action in the frame; but it’s hard to truly engage with a live performance mediated through a camera view. There were times when I wondered if it wouldn’t be just as enjoyable – and probably more comfortable – to sit and watch at home on TV.

BRB has nevertheless done a good job of attracting a wider demographic with this new outing – although the usual throngs of young girls in tiaras and pink tights were in evidence, so too were groups of adult friends who had never seen the ballet before. This reach in the direction of a younger and broader audience might also explain the otherwise baffling presence of 2009 X-Factor winner Joe McElderry singing us a trio of carols before the curtain.

Yawning venues and inexplicable warm-up acts cannot, fortunately, detract from the quality of this Nutcracker. Wright’s staging is rightly celebrated for balancing reverence towards Ivanov’s original choreography with narrative clarity, a welcome measure in an often-busy plot. Frau Silberhaus is in this version a former ballerina and her daughter Clara a ballet student, which perhaps explains the incredibly well-rehearsed petit gallop Clara and her friends greet the assembled guests with as they arrive at the family’s Christmas party.

The best guest is of course Drosselmeyer, ably danced by the charismatic Robert Parker, and his retinue of enchanted dolls. A clever series of magic tricks in the domestic first act smooth the transition to the second, as in Drosselmeyer’s supernatural hands almost anything seems possible.* Laetitia Lo Sardo* is just the right shade of winsome as Clara – sweet without being cloying, hovering en pointe between the sugar-coated fantasies of childhood and her first taste of adult romance in the pas de deux. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Nao Sakuma is also gorgeously quick and light.

From the party sequences to the Waltz of the Flowers, however, Wright’s Nutcracker is a ballet that celebrates ensemble work, and it’s here that BRB really shines. Mirlitons, snowflakes and flowers are meticulous and musical, and the vastness of the O2 stage gives the company dancers room to add a little more balon to the jetés, a little more elevation to the arabesques. It’s hard not to get swept along by the magic of Tchaikovsky’s rhapsodic score combined with the whirling beauty of the divertissements, and the company dancers meet the challenge of the space with relish.

As with any well-loved tradition, there will always be revisions and re-imaginings of The Nutcracker just as there will always be shameless borrowings of the timeless score for less imaginative purposes (I can’t deny the craving for a certain brand of raisin and almond chocolate that came over me during Act 2). But Wright’s version, with its celebrated expanding set, characterful set pieces and loving attention to detail in every step demonstrates that the original (or something very like it) is often the best. I’m unfortunately inclined to think the same goes for theatre spaces.

Continues at the 02 until Sat 30 Dec

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Dance: Sydney Dance Company – 6 Breaths /LANDforms at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

6 Breaths

‘6 Breaths’ Sydney Dance Company Photo: Wendell Theodoro

I first encountered the work of Rafael Bonachela shortly before his winning the inaugural Place Prize would launch the jobbing choreographer and guest artist of his former company, Rambert, into full-time artistic directorship of a company made in his own image. At that time, his pieces displayed a dazzling formal logic, all scissor-like extensions and vertiginous balances that were a gift to the Rambert dancers in showcasing their flawless techniques and strong bodies. Thrilling though those early pure dance pieces were, however, it’s been a pleasure to watch Bonachela’s work mature into something softer, subtler and more expressive.

6 Breaths, the opening piece in this double-bill for Sydney Dance Company, is built on Bonachela’s physical trademarks, but in a way that sometimes calls to mind the fluidity of Trisha Brown. Those long-limbed extensions are still there, but now there’s a little less stretch and a little more swing to the execution, a little more breeze to the exacting arrangements in space. The six breaths of the title refer to emotional states that can be characterised by acts of breathing and that accompany key points in life, from the first to the last. We see the dancers emerge onto the stage from foetal positions, taking a first breath; contracting as with heaving sobs in moments of distress; and tender duets in which the dancers melt into one another as if whispering to a lover.

Running through the piece is a gestural phrase centred on the torso, the emotional as well as the physical centre of the body. 6 Breaths is visually stunning and performed with exquisite precision by the whole company, with Andrew Cranford in particular standing out for his long lines and rock-solid balance. Ezio Bosso’s delicate neoclassical score complements the work perfectly.

LANDforms, also scored by Bosso and inspired by the Australian landscape rather than states of being is perhaps a little more formal than the emotionally resonant first piece. At almost an hour in length it would make a perfectly satisfying stand alone work, and here it suffers somewhat by juxtaposition with 6 Breaths – as the piece unfolds there’s a growing sense of familiarity. The gestural phrases, the ensemble arrangements, the intimate duets are all beautifully composed and beautifully executed; but ninety minutes of Bosso and Bonachela starts to feel like too much of a good thing.

That said, I would happily watch either work again, perhaps just not in a back-to-back sitting. There are moments of breathtaking beauty in both pieces; and more than that, moments that communicate raw emotion, that draw the viewer into the thinking, feeling inner life of the piece rather than resting on its surface. A work by Bonachela was always going to be a visual feast; it’s great that over the years his choreography has developed into something that satisfies the mind and the heart as well as the eyes.

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