The Nutcracker is certainly a most adaptable ballet,
as proved by its frequent reincarnations in all sorts of productions
set widely in terms of both time and place.
Choreographer Maurice Béjart’s interpretation,
available on DVD and reviewed
here, was certainly off-the-wall. A live 20th anniversary
production of Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! that I saw
earlier this year was imaginatively set in “Dr Dross's
Home for Waifs and Strays” and incorporated a huge roll-call
of new and colourful characters. I have also recently reviewed
the DVD of a Royal Swedish Ballet performance that included
such unexpected individuals as Uncle Blue, Aunt Brown, Aunt
Green and Aunt Lavender from Petter and Lotta’s Christmas,
a favourite Scandinavian children's book by Elsa Beskow (see
here). Now comes this Dutch take on the core story that
grafts onto it such specifically national characteristics as
skaters on an Amsterdam canal and the traditional Netherlands
Christmas characters St Nicholas and Zwarte Piet.
The elegant “Jane Austen” costumes, designed by
co-choreographer Toer van Schayk, indicate that the production
has been set at about the time E.T.A. Hoffman’s original
story was written - 1816. Great care has clearly been put into
getting the “look” right, for even Anna Tsygankova’s
tiara in the Grand pas de deux replicates one worn by
Napoleon’s Empress Josephine just a few years earlier.
In fact, the only element of the production that I could spot
as chronologically out of place occurred when a magic lantern
was wheeled onto the stage on castors - which weren’t
patented until 1876!
This production’s overall concept is relatively novel
and dispenses with some of the familiar features of the story.
Thus, for instance, we don’t see a hugely-growing Christmas
tree as Clara “shrinks”, just doors and furniture
that seem to increase in size. That may, though, simply be another
instance of care for historical accuracy, as it seems unclear
at what date decorated trees were generally adopted as part
of Dutch Christmas celebrations.
A more significant novelty concerns the whole of the second
Act, however, for, instead of being transported to a land of
sweets, Clara and her prince are taken into the inner workings
of the aforesaid magic lantern. Moreover, it’s then implied
that the characters featuring in the Grand divertissement
dances are not simply what they appear to be but are instead
psychological reflections of some of the real-life people whom
our heroine had encountered in Act 1. The Spanish dance, for
example, animates a doll that we saw at the earlier Christmas
party. The Arabian dance features not just the usual bevy of
harem girls but a cruel whip-wielding sultan and Clara’s
brother Frits, captured in the battle with the mouse king’s
army and now a prisoner in chains. Sadly, the Chinese dance
isn’t really very “Chinese” at all, apart
from the principal dancer and misses the usual - admittedly
ethnically stereotyped - humour that we expect. After a colourful
Russian dance involving Clara’s parents, we unexpectedly
get a Greek dance that is great fun with some very effective
mugging from a dancer playing what appears to be a lecherous
Ancient Greek philosopher! In general, throughout the Grand
divertissement dances Clara, her brother Frits and the prince
are not simply spectators but take part in the action far more
than usual, and that, I think, works well.
This is an even “busier” production than most, with
a large cast including no fewer than 51 children, some of whom
are very young indeed but all of whom are clearly very enthusiastic.
The youngsters dancing Clara and Frits are especially engaging
and display no sign of nerves whatsoever, as well as considerable
talent for their age. Great care has obviously been taken to
ensure that everyone is well-characterised and acts with an
individual personality. There is certainly always a lot going
on on that Amsterdam Music Theatre stage.
The sets, once again the creation of Toer van Schayk, are generally
well placed, often at visually interesting angles, and are very
attractive, whether what we see is just a small child’s
bedroom or the full-width stage. The second Act set - the interior
of that magic lantern - is especially striking, with massive
cogs, wheels and a giant lens, all tended by workmen with their
spanners and oil-cans. All the sets create appropriate and appealing
showcases for the artists. Some of the props are also very imaginative.
The nutcracker doll itself is more substantial and impressive
than is often the case and it even moves across the stage by,
I presume, remote control. I also enjoyed the brief contribution
of a particularly striking (and animatronic?) cat.
The mouse king episodes are very well done with some effective
comedy. The big battle scene is very lively indeed, and I loved
the brief episode where some of the mice soldiers injured in
battle are stretchered off by the Mouse Red Cross. Anyone familiar
with the usually-encountered version of the story will note,
though, that the rodents’ parts have been significantly
beefed up. Their king actually wins the battle at the
end Act 1 - in a striking vignette his troops haul away a cage-full
of terrified loyalist toy soldiers - and he consequently features
in both the subsequent waltz of the snowflakes and the “inside
the magic lantern” second Act.
Mention of the waltz of the snowflakes reminds me that the corps
de ballet make a real contribution to this production, particularly
in the waltz of the flowers. With some really beautiful costumes,
their richness emphasised by subtle lighting, and supported
by fine orchestral playing that typified the whole performance,
that was one of the evening’s highlights for me.
What, then, of the two principal dancers, Anna Tsygankova and
Matthew Golding? I have reviewed the pair in another Dutch National
Ballet production quite recently (see
here) and once again they are in first class form. In the
Grand pas de deux - something of a “slow-burn”
account here that builds up the passion gradually but inexorably
- they radiate sheer theatrical glamour. Their subsequent solos
then go on to show their individual qualities to best advantage.
Golding is strong, virile and technically assured while Tsygankova
exhibits precision, delicacy and, above all, elegance. Proof
that I struggled to find something to criticise is demonstrated
by the sole negative observation that Mr Golding ought not to
smile quite so much because his unbelievably white teeth shine
distractingly in the stage lighting!
Overall, then, teeth aside, this is a very beautiful production
from a visual point of view, especially when watched on High
Definition Blu-Ray. I did, though, have one technical worry.
There were one or two occasions, most notably in the busy party
scene at about 9:32, when fast lateral movement - either of
dancers running or the camera quickly panning across the screen
- caused deterioration in the sharpness of the visual image.
I may have been sent a rogue disc for it is only fair to point
out that the only current reviewer of the Blu-Ray version on
Amazon specifically says that he detected no movement blur at
all. I should, however, also mention that other Amazon customers,
as well as several contributors to internet ballet forums, have
noted that Arthaus Musik’s Blu-Ray version of Dutch National
Ballet’s Don Quichotte suffers similar problems.
Do let me stress, however, that, even allowing for the odd glitch
on my disc, this is an instance where the Blu-Ray process is
shown to great advantage in a generally magnificent presentation.
There are, I should add, 27 minutes of bonus material consisting
of what appears to have been an interval “filler”
for a live relay of the performance to cinemas across the world.
Presenter Wendeline Wijkstra, a dancer with the company herself,
while undeniably easy on the eye, is unfortunately not a trained
interviewer. As a result she wastes much of her opportunity
with a series of “closed” questions that, with the
exception of some informative contributions from conductor Ermanno
Florio, Toer van Schayk and the company’s artistic director
Ted Brandsen, fail to elicit much of great interest.
Nonetheless, putting the disappointing bonus material to one
side, this Dutch National Ballet production undeniably adds
a very enjoyable, artistically impressive and out-of-the-ordinary
account of The Nutcracker to the growing number of ballet
recordings that are increasingly, these days, widely available.