To the pointe: The Nutcracker

by Frances Teehan and Kathy Laszlo

Frances: I was awaiting the moment where I would be “transported to another world” by a piece which is renowned for its ability to enchant people of all ages.

However, it became apparent from the moment the soundtrack began playing, immediately losing the famous magical atmosphere conjured by a live orchestra, that this would not be the grand production that I was expecting. This disappointment was deepened further when a mawkish backdrop replaced the grand Christmas tree that traditionally greets audiences.

The company presented an extremely young ensemble, echoing the earliest productions of The Nutcracker where Marie, was played by a child. However, despite the youthful excitement this may have brought to the piece, the absence of consistent technique, in addition to the unconvincing facial expressions, became a recurring distraction.

With the programme claiming that Marius Petipa (who died in 1910) choreographed the piece, it is impossible to focus on the individual(s) behind the steps. I was continually frustrated with the amount of repetition that appeared merely to fill time.

A further choreographic weakness was evident in the fight scene between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The steps held promise of excitement and thrill that the audience craves from such a display, but the sequence limited the strength of these sensations. It was almost as if the arrangement was too choreographed, lacking the spark of spontaneity that fuels the motivations behind the conflict.

Marie’s technique was astonishing for a child of such a young age with her double pirouettes neatly closed and her arabesques hitting a strong line. Unfortunately, her performance suffered due to a lack of believable expression, though I remained charmed by her grace.

With the arrival of the Sugar Plum Fairy, I was able to appreciate the benefits of experience as both their technique and performance were mastered harmoniously, especially in the pas de deux of the second act. The fairy’s effortless routines captivated both the audience and younger members of the ensemble on stage, as if demonstrating what they may achieve in the future. In the face of the repetitive choreography, which often missed the climaxes of Tchaikovsky’s legendary score, both of these dancers proved their capability in meriting these leading roles. Further highlights were the character dances of the second act, which successfully captured the humour of the piece. Nonetheless, it was the delightful pointe work of two girls (who could not have been older than eight years old), which warranted the loud cheer of the spectators at the end of the production.

Although not a flawless performance, there was a certain charm so that the audience left the theatre smiling with children leaping around in mock ballet. With the tinsel almost off the fake tree as the curtain closed, this couldn’t match the qualities of the Royal Ballet, but the effort that the performers illustrated throughout was commendable.

Kathy: I fall over in the snow. I trip, I stumble, I slip. In fact, Durham’s fast-approaching transformation into a Winter Wonderland does not only send metaphorical shivers through my spine. Let me put it this way: the closest I have ever come to doing the splits is slipping in the snow and landing in an unfortunate position. Hence my unqualified admiration for all those who can stand up straight and keep their balance in wintery surroundings. Achieving all these tasks – and in pointe-shoes! – the aspiring Ballet Etoiles of Minsk’s State Ballet Academy, had already tiptoed their way into my heart before the first note had even resounded. A hasty judgement?

Granted, said ‘wintery surroundings’ did appear to be literally hanging by a (glittery) thread. But when the staging of festive cityscape, sparkling church spires and a giant Christmas tree turned out to be a feltpen-esque urban silhouette on a giant canvas, glued-on sliver glitter, and a two-dimensional green tinsel statue, irritation was indeed not the only possible reaction. Nostalgia proved a promising alternative, a longing for past times, when families still assembled around Christmas trees; when children, instead of sitting at home, moving as little as their their index finger when catapulting angry birds on their iPads, were able to stand vertically on their toes. Thus, when the two eight-year-olds on stage fought over the eponymous nutcracker so gracefully, tearing the toy away from each other in accordance with the Tchaikovskyan stroke, one could not help but forgive them for their tensely smiling faces as they stood en pointe.

This production, then, underlined that there are features more important in a ballet than elaborate staging, although the admittedly problematic realisation of The Nutcracker could not hide the difficulty of successfully accomplishing this: story, and perhaps more importantly, emotion have to be conveyed not only through movement, but posture of head and body. When verbal language is abandoned, the dancers have to make shoulders, arms and legs tell the story of the young Marie who finds herself transported into a magical kingdom populated by dolls. The young ensemble delivered mixed results: while the Chinese Tea Performers – clad in yellow, mischievous smirks on their faces  – were downright hilarious, the Arab Belly Dancer’s awkward meandering was almost puzzling.

It was only when the Sugar Plum Fairy entered the stage to perform her famous “Dance” that matters were put into perspective. Effortlessly, yet displaying absolute body control up to her fingertips, she breezed on and off the stage, her smile, yes, at ease. In the end, it was her fellow artists’ more trembly, but perhaps more charming work which I will continue to remember, because their efforts taught me a lesson. Thus, when mid-term workload becomes increasingly overwhelming or you are simply scared of the weather like me: sit up straight, shoulders back and face the music. If it hurts a little bit, smile. Dance.

Illustration: Ellie Mills

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