BWW Review: THE NUTCRACKER, Royal Albert Hall
In true balletomane style, my first thought when I knew I would be in London over the Christmas and New Year period was that I would finally be able to catch Birmingham Royal Ballet's (BRB) The Nutcracker, which runs for just seven performances.
Over a festive season that has lacked the magic of Sir Peter Wright's production in repertoire at the Opera House, it's very welcome to see one of his iterations return here - and with able support from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under the baton of Koen Kessels.
Former Director David Bintley embraces the challenge of adapting the production for the unique setting of the Royal Albert Hall, where it has been performed in these "no man's land" days between Christmas and New Year since 2017. It is danced with relish and resolve by the dynamic BRB dancers, who are exciting to watch, but in such an expansive, impersonal setting, the opening party scene lacks intimacy. The set is sparse, with only a modest Christmas tree and some reversible panels to denote the shift from the living room to the Kingdom of Sweets.
Rather curiously, too, Drosselmeyer doubles as a narrator, sporadically chipping in to explain the story to younger members of the audience. The idea is nice, but after the initial introduction is done before the start of the overture, the rest of the interjections over Tchaikovsky's score are jarring and feel childish. The storytelling is of a high quality, and the captivating choreography is danced with great affection by the company, meaning the addition of spoken words is not necessary.
Grumbles aside, there is much to be enjoyed in this lively, interactive production: the rats that creep up to the stage through the auditorium, the snow that falls on the audience's head, and the vivid video projections (59 productions) - a sense of the magical is never far away.
At the party, there is a well-balanced mix of adults and children that allows for more interesting formations and choreography. The selected children party guests are finely drilled, never missing a beat or even a look, and feature some of the youngest I've ever seen.
Clara is vibrantly danced by Karla Doorbar, who demonstrates secure technique throughout an assured and confident performance in this ingenue role - firstly inquisitive and curious in Act One and later playful and radiant in the more fantastical Act Two.
In a refreshing take, her Nutcracker doll who comes to life later becomes the Sugar Plum Fairy's Prince. Cesar Morales is commanding as both characters, but most lovely of all is the tenderness he shows Clara when carrying her "back" to the family living room as she awakes from her dream. A warming touch.
The hollow-sounding stage is unforgiving when it comes to landings, but the tightly rehearsed snowflakes are nimble and effervescent as they fill the stage. There are even male snowflakes in some jaunty silver tail suits who look magnificent as they turn out a series of explosive jetés.
Fans of the Royal Ballet's production will be pleased with the rest of the costuming that remains familiar throughout, the flowers in delicate pinks and whites.
Céline Gittens brings her own unique quality to the Rose Fairy, managing to breathe a freshness into familiar steps. A special mention, too, for Tzu Chao Chou's Jack-in-the-Box, who offers both spring and stamina in an agile addition to the Kingdom of Sweets.
Most impressive of all is Momoko Hirata's transportive Sugar Plum Fairy, danced with a clear-cut crystalline quality. Hirata personifies this opulent fairy: she is expensive but also sweet and dainty in her smooth pique turns and delicate extension. Together with Morales, it's a grand pas de deux to sit back and drink in before the audience is taken back to reality as Clara awakens.
If Nutcrackers are an annual outing, then they can seem like a chore, but when they're as beautifully produced, magically danced and soundly choreographed as this, there should be no doubt about a visit to this festive treat.
The Nutcracker runs at the Royal Albert Hall until 31 December