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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker – ballet in two Acts (1892)
Choreography and production by Rudolf Nureyev
Dr Stahlbaum – Leslie Edwards, Frau Stahlbaum – Betty Kavanagh, Drosselmeyer/the prince – Rudolf Nureyev, Clara – Merle Park, Fritz – Keith Martin, Louisa – Ann Jenner, Nutcracker – Wayne Sleep
The Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/John Lanchbery
Directed for television by John Vernon
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 10 March 1968
Picture format: DVD-5 double layer disc, 4:3, colour
Audio format: LPCM 5.0, Mono
All regions
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1248D [96:00]

Let’s make an obvious point first of all. This disc memorialises a performance that was originally a TV transmission made more than 50 years ago. Though thankfully shot in colour, what we see is inevitably, therefore, not going to be of the highest technical quality.

Nevertheless, even though it has appeared before (in, for instance, a Kultur Video DVD release two decades ago), the A&R people at Opus Arte clearly think that there’s still a market for this disc. In the first place that’s because of Rudolf Nureyev’s assumption of the roles of both Herr Drosselmeyer and the prince. Many fans will, of course, snap up any available piece of footage of the dancer who, through a combination of raw talent and shameless self-promotion, became perhaps the best-known male ballet dancer of the 20th century. This particular release is arguably more important than most, however, in that it documents what at least one expert commentator considers “the beginnings of his maturity as a dance artist in the West” (Robert Greskovic Ballet: a complete guide [London, 2000], p. 541).

A second reason for bringing this performance back into wide circulation is one that will appeal more to specialist ballet historians. Nureyev, it’s fair to say, enjoyed a somewhat chequered career as a choreographer, but this recording is undoubtedly important for it memorialises his first piece of original full-length choreography to have been presented in London (a Stockholm production that served very much as a dry run for it does not seem to have been filmed but is detailed at some length in Julie Kavanagh’s definitive Rudolf Nureyev: the life [London, 2008], pp. 373-379). It’s a version of The nutcracker that’s notably dark in mood – something, indeed, of a danced psychodrama with some rather disturbing sexual undertones bubbling away under the surface - and it certainly takes us a long way away from the thought that this particular ballet is an entertainment mainly for children. Nureyev, a man with a keen nose for the spirit of the times and an enduring predisposition to exploit it, here created a work entirely in tune with the late 1960s popular culture of which he was so much an exemplar and beneficiary.

A third reason why this new DVD is of some importance is that it offers an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the artistry of ballerina Merle Park. This is, of course, by no means the only example of her dancing on film. You can watch her, for instance, in the 1963 film An evening with the Royal Ballet (Kulture Video D1182) where she may be spotted as one of Prince Florestan’s sisters in Aurora’s wedding. She has also featured in two important ballet re-releases of the past decade. The year 2011 saw the first appearance on DVD of a 1959 TV film broadcast of John Cranko’s Pineapple Poll in which she had taken the title role and had given what my colleague John France considered a superb performance (ICA Classics ICAD5040, review). A couple of years later, her pas de deux with Nureyev from August Bournonville’s Flower festival in Genzano also appeared on DVD for the first time and, in spite of a dreadful stage set that did the dancers no favours at all, I thought the interpretation well worth watching (ICA Classics ICAD5099, review). Ms Park’s many admirers will no doubt be delighted that this re-released Nutcracker now makes one of her more substantial – and widely admired – filmed performances readily accessible once more.

It’s clear, then, that viewers with something of a specialist interest in ballet will need no encouragement to acquire this release. For anyone else, however, there are certainly both pros and cons to consider.

On the positive side, the performances still stand up very well. Nureyev and Park had, it seems, a very productive working relationship – he apparently enjoyed the fact that she was willing to argue artistic points with him – as well as a close personal one. That may well be one reason why they emerge on stage as a believable couple with a genuine bond and as attentive and intuitively sympathetic dancing partners (the latter is best demonstrated in their justly celebrated performance of this Nutcracker’s Act 2 Grand pas de deux). The other roles are generally well executed by the members of the Royal Ballet company of that era, although only the names of Wayne Sleep (who dances the role of the nutcracker), Michael Coleman (still performing character roles with English National Ballet, review), Alexander Grant (forever associated with La fille mal gardée, review, to which he was left the rights by Sir Frederick Ashton), Leslie Collier (still a Royal Ballet repetiteur) and Monica Mason (Director of the Royal Ballet 2002-2012) are widely known or recalled today.

When, however, it comes to Nureyev’s production and choreography, I’d suggest that the intervening 52 years have done it very little service, for, with The nutcracker such a perennial favourite, it’s inevitable that several more stylishly conceived and executed productions have come along in that time. Nureyev’s case isn’t helped in that the 1968 performance has been preserved in the form of a penny plain television recording that’s particularly notable for its absence of close-up shots. It’s regrettable that the visual intimacy permitted by today’s filming technology and techniques – regularly delivering both up-close engagement with characters’ inner emotions and useful pointers to important details of the on-stage action – was apparently not an option in 1968.

Should you wish to acquaint yourself with Nureyev’s conception of The nutcracker when filmed to modern standards, I’d suggest that you check out Wiener Staatsballett’s performance from 2012 (review). It’s slightly different from the 1968 performance in that it reflects some final revisions that Nureyev made to his concept in the decade before his death, but its top-grade picture and sound (especially apparent when watched on a large-screen TV with a sound bar attached) really do make a great deal of difference.

By the way, one final point makes this DVD an especially interesting historical record. If you take a look at the Royal Opera House audience in 1968, you will see everyone arriving in their most elegant evening dresses and Saville Row dinner jackets for a smart West End night out for the toffs. While some may regret the change, the audiences at today’s Covent Garden are, thanks to its enlightened management’s eagerness to promote ballet as widely as possible, much more diverse. Add to their numbers the thousands of people in sweatshirts, jeans and trainers who regularly turn out to watch one of the Royal Ballet cinema relays at their local multiplexes and you will see that, while there’s undeniably still a long way to go, ballet is no longer as elite an interest as it once was. And I, for one, say three cheers to that!

Rob Maynard

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