Monday, 25 February 2013

Ballet West's "The Nutcracker"

Val Vannet
Source Wikipedia
Creative Commons Licence

For those who do not know Pitlochry, it is a small town in Perthshire just outside the Cairngorms National Park. Overlooked by Ben y Vrackie, on the banks of the River Tummel and not far from the Queen's View with its magnificent panorama of Loch Tummel and Schiehallion  Pitlochry is surrounded by spectacular scenery.  The town has many attractions but the one that distinguishes it from everywhere else in the Highlands is the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Between May and October every year it holds a summer theatre festival under the strapline "Stay 6 Days, See 6 Plays."  I have been coming to the summer festival on and off for the last 40 years and I can recommend it strongly.  You will find the programme for this year's season right here.

The theatre stages the occasional show in the Winter and I was intrigued to receive a mailing for a performance of "The Nutcracker by Ballet West". Now I had heard of a company by the name of Ballet West in the United States which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year but if that company ever came to the United Kingdom I would have expected it to tour major cities rather than towns in the Highlands of just over 2,500 souls.  It occurred to me that there might be a  company from the West Country which is where Scottish Ballet originated,  I googled "ballet, west, uk" and was surprised but delighted to find a company and school in Taynuilt.  Delighted because where could be more idyllic to study dance than by the banks of a real lake (or more properly loch) which might even host the occasional swan?

Now "Nutcracker" is a ballet I know very well.  Every Christmas I used to see the London Festival Ballet's production at the Festival Hall.   I have seen several other companies' productions, including one by the Cairo Opera Ballet in their new opera house.  More recently I saw David Nixon's production for Northern Ballet in Leeds and the Royal Ballet's which was streamed to cinemas just before Christmas.   I had travelled a long way on Saturday to see Ballet West's production and I am glad to say that I was not in the least disappointed.

This is a very young company and also a manifestly Scottish one.  I loved the reel at the Christmas party in the first Act.   Other touches that I appreciated were a clog dance reminiscent of Simone's in Fille and automatons as in Coppelia in the first act and some extra divertissements such as the Sailor's solo and Mother Ginger and her children in the second.   It is also refreshing to find a ballet with naughty little girls as well as naughty little boys making a nuisance of themselves.  Usually it is just young Fritz or Hans who gets ticked off for damaging the nutcracker,   Another bit of humour was the servants snatching a furtive dram after their employers had had their party.

Altogether I loved the choreography which I now know to have been created by the late Alexander Bennett.   All I know about him is as what appears on the company's website:
"Born in Edinburgh, Mr Bennett achieved international acclaim in the Ballet Rambert and the Royal Ballet. Throughout his years as a principal dancer in both companies he partnered such distinguished ballerinas as Dame Margot Fonteyn & Lynn Seymour, and worked with many of the great choreographers including Peter Darrell, Sir Peter Wright and Sir Robert Helpmann. This production was the last full-length work completed by Mr Bennett."
I shall find out more.

A ballet is made by the virtuosity of its principals who in this production were:
  • Sara-Maria Smith who danced Sugar Plum - a particularly demanding role with its pointe work and fouettés in the pas de deux; 
  • her partner Jonathan Barton, and 
  • Isaac Bowrey who danced Drosselmeyer. 
They all danced well. The website says that Smith and Barton are graduates of Ballet West's school but says nothing about Bowrey whom I liked best of all.

Finally I loved the sets. This is a complicated ballet with a Christmas party, snow scene and a ball room and lost of different costumes from mice and toy soldiers to Chinese, Russians and flowers. Not easy for a great theatre like Covent Garden as we learned from the cinema production. Harder still for the different often tiny stages upon which this company has to perform. Whoever designed the backdrops and costumes did a very good job. The backdrops were much more solid looking than most though Bowrey had to free some fabric which snagged on an expanding Christmas tree.   Particularly impressive were the costumes for the mice whose heads resembled shock troops' helmets and particularly charming were the rainbow skirts for Mother Ginger's daughters.

Was there anything I did not like? Not much. I would have appreciated a programme instead of just a cast sheet. I only found out the name of the choreographer by calling the company and I still do not know the name of the set designer. Some of the divertissements were under-rehearsed and there were a few slight mishaps which hardly anybody noticed and nobody minded. It has to be remembered that Ballet West is a school as well as a company which reaches out to the public. It appears that everyone is allowed a go. There was no orchestra but then this ballet was performed in a theatre designed for drama and the theatre's speakers were pretty good.

The company has one more show to perform on its current tour of Scotland at The Howden Park Centre near Livingston in West Lothian on 1 March. If you live in the area I urge you to see them because you are in for a treat. Surprisingly they have no immediate plans to tour the rest of the United Kingdom though they have advertised a tour of China. I do hope they come to London because I think audiences there will take them to their hearts.

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