Monday, 30 December 2019

The Nutcracker #4 - Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Albert Hall

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Birmingham Royal Ballet The Nutcracker Royal Albert Hall, 29 Dec 2019 13:00

Having seen Sir Peter Wright's version of The Nutcracker for the Birmingham Royal Ballet several times in Birmingham as well as once at the Royal Albert Hall I had very high expectations of yesterday's performance.  I am pleased to report that those expectations were exceeded.  There are two reasons why I liked yesterday's matinee so much.  The first was the sheer quality of the dancers and musicians with Celine Gittens and Brandon Lawrence in the leading roles and Koen Kessels conducting the orchestra.  The second was the straightforward interpretation of Hoffman's story with great special effects but no creepiness or spookiness.

The performance began not with the familiar overture but sounds of industrial activity from Dr Drosselmeyer's workshop. Drosselmeyer (Tom Rogers) appeared on stage and introduced himself through the voice of Simon Callow. He explained that he is called a doll maker but prefers to call his creations "automatons" as he likes to think they have a touch of magic about them.  Nowadays, that "touch of magic" might be called artificial intelligence and that was seen in the self-propelled toy mice that scurried about the Stahlbaums' sitting room as well as the humanoids Columbine, Harlequin, Jack-in-the-Box and, of course, the Nutcracker.  Callow announced that he was bringing gifts for his delightful goddaughter Clara and her somewhat less agreeable brother Fritz.  Beatrice Parma danced Clara. Wesley Mpakati, an 11-year old schoolboy from Tyseley according to Brum Pic, was Fritz,

After that introduction, the orchestra struck up and the ballet unfolded in the traditional way.  The workshop was removed and replaced by a Christmas tree which became the centrepiece of the Stahlbaums' Christmas party.  Guests arrived including Drosselmeyer and his assistant (Gus Payne). They distributed presents to the children: dolls to the girls and drums, rattles and war toys to the boys and the nutcracker to Clara. Fritz and his friends made thorough nuisances of themselves earning more than a few tickings off from Mr Stahlbaum (Jonathan Payn). At one point they grabbed the nutcracker from Clara and damaged it.  Happily, Drosselmeyer was able to repair the damage.  He demonstrated Harlequin (Hamish Scott), Columbine (Rosanna Ely) and the Jack-in-the-Box (Max Maslen) to the guests.

I took a particular interest in the Jack-in-the-Box because Joey Taylor tried to teach me that dance in KNT's Day of Dance last April (see Best "Day of Dance" Ever 23 April 2019).  "And were you able to do any of that?" my companion asked.  "Not much" I had to admit, "but then I am over 70."  However, I am proud to say that several of my classmates who are also adult ballet students did very well even managing a couple of cartwheels.   In yesterday's performance, Taylor was in the Spanish dance.  As my box in the grand tier overlooked stage right, I shouted "Bravo Joey" at the end of the divertissement which I hope he heard.   If not, he will know that I appreciated his performance should he ever get round to reading this review.

After the party, the Christmas tree expanded and giant baubles descended from the ceiling.  Mice and toy soldiers appeared and fought a battle that the mice nearly won. Clara saved the day for the soldiers by clobbering the mouse king (Gabriel Anderson) with one of her pointe shoes.  As a reward, she was transported to the land of sweets by a jet-propelled seagull.  The expansion of the Christmas tree was achieved by massive side panels on either side of the stage.  The same side panels showed rotating rotor blades in engines below the seagull's wings.  In the land of sweets, Clara was treated to the Spanish, Arab, Chinese and Russian divertissements followed by the mirlitons, waltz of the flowers and the Sugar Plum pas de deux.

Gittens was excellent as ever  Over the years I have seen her in most of the leading classical roles.   I think that she is particularly good in The Nutcracker.  I should mention in passing that she is this publication's ballerina of the year, her company is Terpsichore's "company of the year" and Ruth Brill is our choreographer of 2019.  Finally, Birmingham Royal Ballet's former director, David Bintley, has been awarded a knighthood in the 2020 honours list.   As he comes from the next village but one to mine in the Holme Valley I take particular pleasure in congratulating him on that accolade (see  My Home and Bintley's 12 May 2015).  Quite an annus mirabilis for the company.

Everybody danced well yesterday and I say that despite a couple of slips on the artificial snow.  Lawrence partnered Gittens deftly and jumped impressively in the final pas de deux.  Rogers was a splendid Drosselmeyer.  Yijing Zhang was a delightful snow fairy.  Anderson was a fine mouse king.  Maslen made an impressive Jack-in-the-Box.   Finally, it was good to see the musicians at work.  Kessels, whom I met briefly at the Dutch National Ballet's gala in 2018, is almost a dancer in his own right and I was grateful for the monitor that remained focused on the maestro throughout the show.

There are three more performances of The Nutcracker before the season ends.  Ticket prices are not cheap. Even the programmes cost £10.  However, if you see no other ballet over the coming year this is the one to catch.

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