Opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker at Birmingham Hippodrome coincided with its creator Sir Peter Wright’s 90th birthday.
The production was created by Sir Peter 26 years ago to mark the dance company’s relocation to Birmingham, and the legendary choreographer was present to enjoy the launch of this year’s run of the much-loved festive perennial.
Set in the late 19th century, during a Christmas Eve party hosted by Dr Stahlbaum and his wife, magician Drosselmeyer produces gifts for all the children present, including a nutcracker doll for the Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara. After the guests have left the family retire to bed, but Clara sneaks back downstairs to play with her new doll. As the clock strikes midnight, Drosselmeyer reappears and Clara is transported to a magical winter wonderland of dancing snowflakes, a malevolent rat king and a handsome nutcracker prince.
Right from curtain up, this production has the wow-factor. There was an audible gasp from the audience when the first of many extraordinary sets was revealed. The scenery, special effects and costumes, devised by designer John Macfarlane. are spectacular. From the giant Christmas tree transformation to a magical snowstorm at the end of Act I – it’s one of the most visually stunning shows I’ve ever seen.
Tchaikovsky’s evocative score, faithfully executed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, gives the production an additional layer of magic.
Any less of a company might have been overshadowed by such elaborate staging, but The Nutcracker is the perfect vehicle for Birmingham Royal Ballet to show what it is made of. Despite a few minor timing issues during some of the group dances in Act I, this renowned troupe is world class.
There are many standout performances – Karla Doorbar is delightful as Clara, and Jonathan Payn is a commanding presence as the enigmatic Drosselmeyer. Tzu-Chao Chou’s performance as the Jack-in-the-Box is jaw-droppingly energetic and young Max Blackwell is charming as Clara’s mischievous little brother.
While most of the action takes place in Act I, the second act is a series of divertissements in various fantasy realms, which in the most part have little to do with the story. Clara is somewhat sidelined to observe the Waltz of the Flowers and dynamic Russian and Spanish-style dances. It is these continental-themed sections of the ballet which perhaps haven’t aged so well. The Chinese tea dance, for example, is an awkwardly stereotypical caricature complete with pointing fingers and bobbing heads.
That said, the best is indeed saved until last. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is exquisitely executed by Momoko Hirata. The grand pas de deux featuring the Sugar Plum Fairy and The Prince is equally flawless. Hirata is partnered by Joseph Caley, and together they give a beautiful performance that is both sensitive and exhilarating.
Sir Peter Wright’s masterpiece continues to delight. After 26 years and over 500 performances, this classic ballet has lost none of its sparkle. Enchanting and poignant, the Birmingham Royal Ballet has yet again delivered a sensational festive showpiece.