Turkeys get a little nervous – “Do I look fat to you?” Anxious homeowners say for rosaries of dead fairytale lights and seams let down on two-year-old party dresses: yes, it is Nutcracker time. There are four to be presented in London this winter and the first to open was Peter Wright’s beloved 1984 production for the Royal Ballet, which began Tuesday with his 31 performances to a standing ovation.
The stage has changed somewhat in the last 37 years (Wright is a big believer in second thoughts), but the biggest changes came during the 1999/2000 revival. The basic scenario of a toy maker’s nephew turning into a new household tool has remained unchanged (and they say ballets have no intrigue), but Clara, the young girl at the heart of the story, suddenly has much more had to do. Originally a spectator in the Act Two Kingdom of the Sweets entertainment, she suddenly joined all the character dances and her relationship with the Nutcracker / cousin became a teenage romance, complete with his own not two (too much too young, for sure, for a girl still getting dolls for Christmas).
The revamped role requires girly manners and cut glass technique and both were provided by Anna Rose O’Sullivan, along with Joseph Sissens. Sissens’s pairing still has some rough edges, but his mimicry is clear and he shares O’Sullivan’s surprisingly fast, light jump – as if they were both cut heavenward on invisible wires.
Koen Kessels and the orchestra, back in full force after last year’s social distancing restrictions, did full justice to Tchaikovsky’s magical score. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs retain their Christmas card charm: Biedermeier at the home of Stahlbaum in Industry One; German sugar sculpture for Deed Two’s visit to Confiturembourg. Toy theater apartments and beautiful mesh provide magical, free-flowing transformations from reality to fantasy (and back again).
Gary Avis, who can steal a scene with a swing, is in his prime as Drosselmeyer, the ballet’s master of revelers / choreographer and there was strong support for Act One’s dance toys. Harry Churches and Ashley Dean were classic robots like Harlequin and Columbine and Isabella Gasparini and David Yudes were as fluent and musical as the Vivandière and her soldier. Akt Two’s Arabic dance was traditionally a foursome, with two outriders posing on either side of the main pair during the terrifying two-handed “po” lifts, but Lukas B Brændsrod and Melissa Hamilton worked without a safety net on Tuesday in a glorious confidence performance of orientalist acrobatics (and washboard stomachs). The Flower Waltz was led by a gracious Yuhui Choe, just returned from maternity leave (you can fill a nursery with ballet’s lock babies).
And then, as the masked house holds its breath, Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov begin their masterclass in classic pairing at the Sugar Plum Fairy not two: casual travel beaten, vibrating throbbing steps, both dancers radiate their joy to share Ivanov’s sublime duet.
In rep until January 8, roh.org.uk; broadcast live in cinemas worldwide on December 9
Three more London nutcrackers
English National Ballet dance Wayne Eagle’s stylish if slightly confused version. London Coliseum, 16 December-8 January, ballet.org.uk
Birmingham Royal Ballet dance a modified version of Peter Wright’s 1990 Nutcracker using charming projections that are cleverly adapted to the unique strengths and weaknesses of the venue. Royal Albert Hall, December 28-31, brb.org.uk
Matthew Bourne’s witty, enjoyable 1992 remake of the Christmas favorite places the first half in a grim Victorian orphanage and the second in a Technicolor Kingdom of the Sweeties. Sadler’s Wells, December 7-January 30, sadlerswells.com