Something New: The Nutcracker

It is December, the month of all things sparkly, wintery, and fun. Christmas is just around the corner and that heralds the return of the popular Christmas themed ballet, The Nutcracker.

This ballet isn’t strictly something new for me. I grew up listening to the music thanks to issue 41 of the Magical Music Box. I used to listen to it at night curled up warm in bed as I drifted off to sleep dreaming of magic and fairies. But during the decades that I have enjoyed the music I have never actually seen the ballet live. So to fix this on Wednesday 5th December 2012 I went along to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre Theatre to see the Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet of Russia perform.

The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker is one of the most popular ballets being performed today. Because of this it is hard to think that when it was first performed in St Petersburg in 1893 it received mixed reviews. Tchaikovsky himself was very unhappy with it! He along with other critics found it too rich, lush and exuberant, even for the ballets at the time which is saying something. Tchaikovsky was reported to have said that it was “too magnificent; the eyes weary from this luxury.” Some critics even warned that performing it would lead to a ballet companies “downfall”.

Taking on this risky venture in The Grand Canal Theatre is the Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet of Russia. This company is one of the oldest in St Petersburg, founded in 1870. Initially the company focused on opera but then branched out into ballet in the 1920s.  The company is largely influenced by the Kirov school and launched the careers of Anna Pavlova, Vaskav Nijinsky, and Sergei Diaghilev. The company is home to 80 dancers and they perform a mix of traditional and contemporary classics from all over the world. They were accompanied for the evening by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. With these things combined I was very eager to finally see the show.

The Music

Composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky the music was an absolute treat but then again I was biased. The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra were excellent as always. Their playing was clear, crisp and flawless. It showcased the wonderful techniques that Tchaikovsky employed to create a rich, magical aural landscape. From the diametrically opposed keys, to the unusual instrument choices (like the celesta in the Sugar Plum Fairy dance) and his use of time and rhythm, the audience were spoiled for entertainment. The music also stands up outside of the show and is very easy to enjoy for its own sake.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

The Sets and Costumes

These were designed by Vyacheslav Okunev and were absolutely wonderful. They provided an excellent backdrop and accent to the dancing. The sets were painted in an old fairy-tale style to reflect scenes from the 19th century and Marie’s imagination. The outdoor scenes evoked the chill of a snowy landscape while indoors played host to Christmas parties and toy battles. The sets were also very clever as parts lifted and lowered to create new vistas on the stage. The Christmas tree even rose up for the fight scene between the toys and the King of the Rats.

The costumes were in keeping with the sets. They were designed in the classic style with big wigs, skirts and curls. There were plenty of sparkles which lit up the stage as the dancers spun across the stage. The toy costumes were also fabulous and they transformed the dancers into life size, dancing, spinning toys. The costumes for the international dancers were themed based on the country that the dance was meant to represent.  The Eastern Dance and Trepak were particularly fun and colourful. Now a couple of the costumes were a bit cringy for their Un-PCness but it is an old story with some slightly outdated notions about what people look like around the world. So it was a bit eye opening!

The Story

The story is nothing special to be honest. It is the story of a little girl who gets a Christmas toy and imagines that it turns into a handsome prince. Not particularly original or ground-breaking but the plot probably is the weakest point so the music, staging and dancing can take centre stage. Combined the four elements evoke that Christmas, magical feeling that is intended so in a way it doesn’t really matter and in no way takes takes away from the show.

The Dancing

I know very little about ballet itself. One year of lessons when I was 4 years old is about all I know so I can’t really comment on technique or proper methods. But I can say that I very much enjoyed it. The sheer amount of strength, stamina and flexibility displayed was incredible. The dancers moved with such grace and speed  all while keeping in character and in-time with the music. The solo dances of Alexandra Surodeeva (Marie) and Ruslan Savdenov (Prince/Solider) were really impressive and made me feel really, really unfit.

The crowd dance scenes were wonderful. It was amazing that they were able to leap and bound on stage with so many people and not bang into anybody. The snowflake dance was really lovely and the dancers moved with fantastic grace and co-ordination.

One of the things that I was not expecting was the noise. Sometimes the bang of the dancers feet off the stage created quite a clatter. It was however in time with the music which was very impressive. At other times the same amount of people were leaping but there was no sound whatsoever so much was the level of control that they have over their bodies.

For those who think they could not handle this much dancing I have good news for you, the time really flew while we were watching it.  This is because the dances are quite short. The music changes, the dancers do their thing and it changes and repeats. Act 2 is particularly great for this as we have the Spanish, Eastern, Chinese and Trepak dances all in a row mixed in with group and Marie/Prince dances. Act 1 is also easy to watch and enjoy as you have the unveiling of the toys who each do their solo dances, I love the doll in particular. There is also the flurry of the Christmas dance which ebbs and flows and everywhere you look someone is up to something else. It suits all attention spans!

The Wizard and the children

It was a great fun show and I really enjoyed it even though we had crap seats (it was nearly sold 0ut when I bought the tickets.) It made me feel all Christmassy and you wouldn’t even notice that there is no speaking at all during the show. It was great fun and suitable for all ages.

Would you like to enjoy the magic at home?

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House have a complete edition of the music for purchase.

The Royal Ballet have recorded some performances from 200o and  2009

There is also a children’s book by Geraldine McCaughrean.

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