Sunday, 11 March 2018

No Ordinary Nutcracker - Duchy Ballet's 20th Anniversary Performance

Sara-Maria Barton as Sugar Rum Cherry
Author Zoe Green Photography
© 2018 Duchy Ballet
Reproduced with kind permission of the company

Duchy Ballet  The Nutcracker Hall for Cornwall, 10 March 2018, 19:30

In my very first blog post just over 5 years ago I reviewed Ballet West's performance of The Nutcracker at the Festival Theatre in Pitlochry.  The ballerina in that performance was Sara-Maria Barton and she danced brilliantly. It is a long way to Pitlochry from Clegg and Compo Land but that show was well worth the journey. Today I travelled approximately the same distance in the opposite direction to see another performance of The Nutcracker - this time by Duchy Ballet. Again, Barton was the lead dancer.  Once again she danced brilliantly as did everybody. Yet again, the show was worth every single millimetre of the journey.

Tonight's show was no ordinary Nutcracker.  Shortly after the house lights dimmed and the music started my row of the stalls was bathed in light as Mr and Mrs Stahlbaum's guests stepped in front of us. In a questionnaire that was circulated to the audience, we were asked "What was the most memorable part of Duchy Ballet's Nutcracker and why?" Not an easy question to answer because there was much that was memorable but I wrote down that entrance because it invited the audience into the show allowing us to feel part of the story.   It was the first of many clever touches by the choreographer and producer, Terence Etheridge.

Another difference in Etheridge's version is that Clara was quite grown up. Her role was danced appealingly on Saturday night by Grace Hazeldine. Drosselmeyer - slightly sinister in most productions and sometimes a little dotty - was danced dashingly by Jamie Constance.  In this production, he was a tall, slender and handsome ballet student - not a wizened wizard or batty inventor.  There were some lovely little touches such as Clara gently cradling her nutcracker, Bethany Hoskins, Kira Allen and Amy Shakerley as mechanical ballerinas, Stuart Strongman and Amy Robinson as a soldier automaton  and his vivandière and some of the youngest dancers holding a Roman numeral turning in sequence to represent the passing of the hours up to midnight.

Strongman led his soldiers into a fierce battle with the rodents led by Riley McLoughlin. In my review of Scottish Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker I said that Lez Brotherston's vermin are the best in the business (see Newcastle Nutcracker (16 Feb 2018). Well Duchy Ballet's were pretty fearsome too. But for Clara's intervention they would have won the day in Truro. She seemed to show a pang of remorse after she had dispatched King Rat which made me warm to her all the more.

The first act ended traditionally with a blizzard of snowflakes with Laura Miners as their queen. Joined on stage by young dancers bearing lanterns they were quite charming.  Nothing like last week's "beast from the east".

Although Etheridge had made the changes that I mentioned above, tailored the choreography and tweaked the libretto to suit his dancers, the first act would have been recognizable to Petipa and Ivanov.  The music was Tchaikovsky's. The story was based on Hoffmann and Dumas.  The second act was rather different.  For a start there was live music provided by the talented students of Truro School Senior Jazz Orchestra conducted by their teacher Peter Thompson.  Instead of Tchaikovsky's composition they played Duke Ellington's adaptation of Tchaikovsky's score. In place of the kingdom of the sweets there was a jazz café imaginatively designed by Sandra Goodenough.  In substitution of a Sugar Plum Fairy there was a Sugar Rum Cherry danced quite deliciously by Barton.

I should stress, however, that though the link with Tchaikovsky, Petipa and Ivanon was stretched it was never strained to breaking point. Tchaiovsky's tunes remain recognizable in Ellington's variations. In traditional productions the Spanish dance represents chocolate, the Arabian coffee and the Chinese tea.  Etheridge extended the analogy to all the divertissements so that we had "Manhattan Sunrise", "Sassy Sangria", "Bucks Fizz" and "Liquorice Cocktail" as well as other concoctions to the dance of tje mirlitons, flowers and all the other familiar pieces.  All the divertissements delighted me but if I had to choose a favourite it would be the Chinese dance.  It is seldom done well because the music is tingly and often it is clowned.  Etheridge created a children's dance which suited both mood and music.  I should add that I was greatly impressed by the strength and skills of the waiters, Strongman, McLoughlin and, Constance though I am not sure that their dance could be described as a divertissement.

It was a joy was to see Barton again.  I had greatly enjoyed her performances as Sugar Plum, Odette-Odile and Juliet for Ballet West (see Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" 25 Feb 2013 and Thinking our Loud about Ballet West 8 Feb 2016, Swan Loch - Ballet West's Swan Lake, Pitlochry 1 March 2014 3 March 2014 and Ballet West's Romeo and Juliet  1 Feb 2015). She has now moved to Glasgow to pursue other interests and no longer performs with that company.  Despite outstanding performances by Natasha Watson and Uyu Hiromoto, I had missed her very much.  Well, her presence last night in Cornwall more than made up for her absences over the last two years in Scotland.  In a rôle created especially for her she seemed to dance better than ever.  Certainly, she delighted me more than ever.

Because this year is the 20th anniversary of Duchy Ballet, Kay Jones, the artistic director, came on stage after the curtain call. She congratulated the cast and the musicians from Truro School on their performance.  She acknowledged the massive contributions of Sianne Strasberg, Maureen Pascoe and Terence Etheridge to the company.   She announced that the Hall for Cornwall will close for several years  from July for extensive renovations during which time the company will require a new temporary home and perhaps new venues.  She appealed to the audience to complete the feedback questionnaire that I mentioned in the second paragraph so that informed decisions could be made as to how the company should use that time.

As I noted in Ballet in Cornwall 17 Sep 2016, Duchy Ballet is very important to Cornwall as it provides stage experience for talented students and an opportunity for Cornish residents to see high quality ballet locally. However, Duchy Ballet is also important to the rest of the country for three reasons.  First, students who have danced with Duchy Ballet study, work and teach elsewhere.  Secondly, the company has developed an audience in Cornwall not just for its own performances but also for those of Birmingham Royal Ballet's southern tour and other companies too.  Thirdly, Duchy Ballet has created works on Cornish themes like The Mermaid of Zennor and the Mousehole Cat that might otherwise never have been made.  It is therefore in everybody's interest to support the company. For those who wish to do so there are Friends of Duchy Ballet, "Sponsor a Dancer" and other fund raising schemes.

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