Mathias Dingman’s Prince battles King Rat. Pictures: Bill Cooper

The Nutcracker

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

When it comes to The Nutcracker, Sir Peter Wright’s version for Birmingham Royal Ballet is, as Tina Turner might have put it, simply the best – and the best has just got better.

A £1 million refurbishment seems to have been money well spent on what truly is the people’s ballet, Sir Peter’s gift to Birmingham and the Hippodrome as a thank you for giving a splendid new home to what was then the Saddler’s Wells Royal Ballet.

That sparkle and magic that lit up Birmingham’s Christmas in 1990 are back, with a performance to delight the old and captivate a new generation.

The sets and costumes are all pristine and fresh, from the rich, sumptuous reds of the walls, drapes and curtains of the Christmas Eve party opening in Dr Stahlbaum’s home to the revamped land of snow.

The good doctor is danced by Jonathan Payn while his wife is danced by Samara Downs, resplendent in a glorious red dress to mirror the new décor. The makeover is apparent from the start for Nutcracker regulars. The opening front cloth design is new as is the rear cloth in Act II, vibrant with strong colours, all designed, once again, by John Macfarlane.

Amid the changes though some things are best left as they are. I can’t remember the last time I saw The Nutcracker when Karla Doorbar was not dancing Dr Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara, the ballet student, its certainly long enough for student Clara to have gone on to complete at least one PhD.

karla doorbar

Karla Doorbar as ballet student Clara

But she has never looked so enchanting or danced as beautifully as she did on Press night. There is a buzz about BRB these days, whether it is being back on stage after the difficulties of Covid, or the inspiration of superstar director Carlos Acosta, who knows, but it seems to lift every performance and every performer up a gear.

Rory Mackay arrived in the whirl that is Drosselmeyer, the magician who is a mysterious flamboyant character with a hint of the sinister about him with his flowing cloak and magic tricks. Drosselmeyer is the MC of the proceedings bringing out the lifesize dolls of the comedia del arte characters Harlequin, danced by Riko Ito, and the mechanical Columbine doll, danced with jerky precision by Rachele Pizzillo.

Max Maslen bounced merrily around the stage as the Jack-in-the-box, his folded up return to the box no doubt eliciting more than a few twinges of imagined pain in the less flexible more, should we say, mature members of the audience.

Then there were the children from BRB’s Dance Track, Elmhurst Ballet School, its Young Dance Programme and the Royal Ballet Junior Associates. Among them one little chap whose shorts were almost taller then he was, but, with a look of determination, he never missed a step.

The Nutcracker is all about fantasy and so we have the wonderful transformation scene as the Christmas tree and fireplace grow in a masterful piece of stagecraft and illusion with not even a hint of CGI in sight.

Enter King Rat, with Gabriel Anderson strutting his whiskered, betailed stuff in his new uniform, to do battle with Gus Payne as the red-coated Nutcracker doll – a quick change from his day job as Drosselmeyer’s assistant.

Grosselmeyer

Drosselmeyer works his magic in his fantasy worlds

There is another quick change with a classy bit of illusion as Payne’s Nutcracker becomes Mathias Dingman’s Prince after Clara has seen off the royal rodent by clubbing him around the ears with her shoe.

The Prince dances her to the Land of Snow and another technically demanding transformation from the stage crew which gives us Yijing Zhang as the Snow Fairy, a role she danced with aplomb ably supported  by her four attendants and winds surrounded by the corps of snowflakes all ending in a festive fall of snow.

Act II has a new look opening with a new swan carrying Clara across the stage on a new trajectory over a stage knee deep in mist from which the hiding rats emerge.

We are entering Drosselmeyer’s fantasy world with its giant flowers, marble columns, sun, moon and dancers from around the world, Beatrice Parma, Kit Holder and Javier Rojas representing Spain and Louis Andreasen, Ryan Felix and Callum Findlay-White as the Russian dancers with Rosana Ely, Reina Fuchigami, Sofia Liñares and Rachele Pizzillo as the Mirlitons. The first three also seen as Snow Queen attendants and Rachele as Columbine.

Two of the national dances have changed, along with attitudes in the case of the Chinese dance from Riko Ito and Gus Payne (the duo doubling up again). The dance might have been seen as harmless fun in its 1990 original but was starting to look a little disparaging to BRB’s neighbours in the Chinese Quarter 32 years on so was reworked to become athletic fun again.

Sugar Plum Fairy 

Momoko Hirata as The Sugar Plum Fairy

The other changed dance was the Arabian dance which originally had three men and a girl in what was a slow, sensuous episode with an element of Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights about it.

The new version is reduced to just a man and a woman, Yaoqian Shang and Gabriel Anderson, and, although others might disagree, it did not work as well. It was well danced, nothing wrong with the performance, it was slow and graceful, romantic even, but that sensual quality, that hint of the Arabian Nights’ eroticism, had gone.

Time for another transformation and Clara who had joined in the dances in a clever switch becomes the ballerina of her dreams, the Sugar Plum Fairy danced by the exquisite Momoko Hirata. I never fail to be impressed by her dainty, lightning fast and precise footwork. She can do comedy and rustic but in Nutcracker she is the ultimate archetypal music box ballerina.

The celesta led dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy is perhaps the standard favourite tune for ballerina music boxes and Momoko didn’t disappoint while her pas de deux with Dingman with his athletic, easy, elegant style as the handsome prince was a highlight.

Dreams end though and The Sugar Plum Fairy becomes Clara once more while Drosselmeyer’s fantasy land returns to the Stahlbaum’s home and Christmas morning.

The production is a delight from beginning to end with Sir Peter’s gift one that can now continue to give for another 30 years. Sir Peter, incidentally, 96 this coming Friday, was a guest of honour on Press night.

Two more stars of the show were Pyotr Tchaikovsky for one of the most memorable scores in not just ballet but the whole of classical music and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under conductor Paul Murphy, Birmingham’s other renowned symphony orchestra, who brought the score to magical life.

The Nutcracker dances on to 10-12-22

Roger Clarke

19-11-22

BRB

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