Saturday 13 December 2014


Manchester's Theatre Street: The Dancehouse Theatre, Northern Ballet
School and KNT Danceworks
Photo Wikipedia

Manchester City Ballet, The Nutcracker, Dancehouse Theatre, 12 Dec 2014

For the last week Jeannette Winterson has been talking about Manchester on Radio 4. The title for her talks is Manchester: Alchemical City. She has chosen that title to celebrate our city's genius for creating riches of all kinds - intellectual, cultural, spiritual as well as material - out of base matter.

A good example of that genius is Northern Ballet School which set up in a derelict cinema on Oxford Road. If Manchester is to the United Kingdom what St Petersburg is to Russia then Oxford Road which connects out great universities to several of our theatres and concert hall is our Theatre Street (see "The New Mariinsky" 4 May 2013 for the significance of "Theatre Street").  The space has been converted into a magnificent centre for the study and performance of all kinds of dance. As well as the School, which justifiably describes itself as "an international centre of excellence in training for classical ballet and musical theatre" there is KNT Danceworks for adult classes which I attend whenever I can  (see So Proud of Manchester - KNT Danceworks Complete Beginners Class 29 Aug 2014) and the Dancehouse Theatre. Every year, members of the school dancing as Manchester City Ballet, present one of the classical ballets in that theatre.  This year they chose The Nutcracker which I saw last night.

The Nutcracker must be a challenge to stage because every member of the public thinks he or she knows the ballet and has his or her own notions as to how it is to be performed, whether a balletomane or not. It is one of the traditions of Christmas like Handel's Messiah. Most of  the major companies of the world have a version in their repertoire. The ballet is often shown on television. Tunes from the ballet like the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Waltz of the Flowers are played, whistled and even sung in all sorts of versions. There is not much of a story and thus not much for the principals to do but there is lots of character dancing and the second act is chock full of divertissements. 

Because the ballet is so well known choreographers and producers are tempted to put their own twist on the story and introduce gimmicks such as balloons. That is nearly always a mistake.  As I said when I reviewed Chelmsford Ballet's production ("The Nutcracker as it really should be danced - No Gimmicks but with Love and Joy" 20 March 2014) the ballet works best when it holds fast to Hoffmann's story and Petipa's choreography. Yesterday's performance by Manchester City Ballet was true to the original though the Stahlbaums were elevated to the Russian nobility as Count Pyotr and Countess Katrina, Drosselmeyer was renamed Kazimir and Clara's naughty little brother was called Misha rather than Hans or Fritz.

There were some interesting linkages between the first and second Acts. Clara had an elder sister called Natalia who morphed into the Sugar Plum Fairy and Natalia's fiancé in Act I became the Sugar Plum Fairy's cavalier in Act II. The battle scene between the toy soldiers and the rodents was one of the best I have ever seen. That was choreographed specially by Anton Alexandrov separately from the rest of the ballet which was choreographed by David Needham.  I should add that I loved Sarah Oxley's set designs, particularly her backdrop for the kingdom of the sweets with cup cake fillings substituted for onion bowl cupolas.

Manchester City Ballet showed that Northern Ballet School has a lot of very promising young dancers. Misato Ito who danced the Sugar Plum Fairy and Natalia and Jack Brownhill who was Sugar Plum's cavalier and Natalia's fiancé displayed considerable virtuosity. Nicole Hamill was an adorable Clara. She was given much more to do than in many productions in that she danced several of the divertissements of Act II.  Her dance with the children was particularly charming. Steven Lloyd, who also danced Clara's father was a magnificent King Rat. Luca De Martino, who was also Harlequin and in the Chinese tea dance was a great Nutcracker. Bradley Parsons, who also danced in the Spanish chocolate was an excellent Kazimir (Drosselmeyer). Megan Reid danced delightful solos in the snowflake and waltz of the flowers. While all the divertissements were good I cheered particularly loundly for the Russians - Alex Burrows, Carlos Oliviera and Harry Powell - the Mirlitons - Yui Hayahsi, Yukiho Kasai and Aida Martinez Pastor - and Columbine - Sayaka Sugimoto who also accompanied Bradley Parsons in the Spanish dance.

Unlike the second city of Russia the second city of the United Kingdom does not host a major ballet company for the moment (though that may change with the massive investment in The Factory - Manchester (see "Let's bring the Royal Ballet to The Factory Manchester11 Dec 2014)), but our city does have a very good ballet school on its theatre street.

Post Script
If you want to find out more about Northern Ballet School and the studios in which KNT Danceworks operates there is a beautifully made video called "Want To Be Here - A taste of life at Northern Ballet School" which I thoroughly recommend.

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