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Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker:St Petersburg Ballet Theatre Production with Vadim Nikitin (Conductor) Konstantin Tachkin (Director) and Irina Kolesnikova (Principal) Birmingham Symphony Hall, 9.1.2011 (GR)

What was your Christmas outing treat? A pantomime? For many an annual tradition has been to attend a full ballet performance of Tchaikovsky’s
The Nutcracker. Midland folk have the luxury of the Birmingham Royal Ballet on their doorstep and over the years there have been many memorable productions at the Birmingham Hippodrome of this fairy tale adapted from the ETA Hoffmann story. This year was different for me: it came courtesy of that ace of touring ballet companies, the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre. I saw the Jan 9th 2011 matinee presentation and the young and old in the packed audience created a panto atmosphere.

The Birmingham Symphony Hall is not renowned for its theatricalities, so the SPBT, and director Konstantin Tachkin in particular, had their work cut out. Several of the front stalls had been removed in order to accommodate an orchestral pit and an adequate depth of stage; nevertheless some of the numbers involving the full 30+
corps de ballet did seem somewhat cramped. What was super-efficient was how smoothly the numerous dancers managed to deliver themselves from the wings onto and off the visual stage – at the correct moment and in the right order.

Overture was not a promising start from the orchestra, conducted by Vadim Nikitin. Without a programme (supposedly sold out, but with one of the three originally scheduled performances cancelled, this seemed odd) it was difficult to assess the number of strings, but their ranks seemed a bit thin for the familiar bouncy opening. We saw some of the party guests arrive in front of a huge curtain before it went up – and I mean huge reaching the roof of the cavernous Birmingham Symphony Hall. The set for Act I revealed this was clearly going to be a conventional production from Tachkin – thank goodness! It looked Christmassy, although the big time-honoured tree was rather two-dimensional (and insecure at times). There were some magnificent costumes as friends and relatives brought their presents for the Silberhaus siblings Clara and Fritz, but the scene was too busy for my liking; much of the continuity was also lost by the smatterings of applause at any plausible moment. The clock duly struck to announce a striking Drosselmeyer who got the focus of my attention. The zany Dymchik Saykeev carried a stick with a sickle on top – this was a Russian production after all. One doll present brought by the children’s godfather was the instantly recognisable Harlequin, and Anton Maltsev was true to character – amusing, simple and agile. Uppermost of course among Clara’s presents from the toymaker was the Nutcracker doll and Drosselmeyer demonstrated its action, no mechanised devices as in certain interpretations. After the guests had departed Clara settled down to sleep on a chaise longue. This surprisingly signalled the first interval.

The battle between some sinister-looking mice led by their King and the soldiers was aggressively choreographed and accompanied by some atmospheric music from Nikitin and his band. The scene changed to a snowy pine forest, white with a touch of magic in the air. The orchestra, aided by the acoustics of the Symphony Hall, produced an evocative passage through the snow. A delightful solo from Astgikh Ogannnesyan as the Snow Queen confirmed that things were getting decidedly better. The reason behind the interval split now became clear – an additional scene had been inserted into Tchaikovsky’s score. This began with a
Pas de Deux involving the Prince played by Dmitry Akulinin, and Irina Kolesnikova as Clara, an experienced partnership that produced the highlight of the afternoon so far. Kolesnikova showed why she has been the prima ballerina of SPBT for some ten years. With curves and legs that seem to go on for ever, she was not totally credible as Clara the child. But as the adult those limitations were turned to advantage and elegance and grace radiated from her sound technique. The suave and dashing Akulinin provided some prodigious leaps and excellent support. And what an exit – Kolesnikova dragged across the stage on her veil. The Waltz of the Snowflakes was also stylish and featured sixteen of the essentially young SPBT troupe, the polished product of the Vaganova Academy of Ballet based in St Petersburg. Excellent though this intermediate section was, the need for a second interval did slightly disrupt to the whole show.

The kindest thing to say about the third tableau in the ‘Land of Sweets’ was that it was Russian and in keeping with Tachkin’s traditional settings – if you like your ballet to be charming and without the gimmicks of a Matthew Bourne, the SPBT is for you. Once more Tachkin had seemingly tinkered with Tchaikovsky’s score, rearranging the order of the assorted dance genres that comprise the
Divertissement. Each was faithful to its designation. The ‘Eastern’ offering from Inna Andreeva was outstanding with sensuous arm movements – a mouth-watering contribution that reminded me of Eartha Kitt and Uska Dara. For the Trepak, the ‘Russian’ trio produced their version of a Cossack knees-up. The Dance of the Mirlitons was notable for the trills of the reed section. The Waltz of the Flowers also brought out the best from the orchestra; Nikitin was strictly in 3/4-metre with the dancers and built the swinging Tchaikovsky score to an energetic and pulsating climax. However I thought the lifting of the row of female dancers by their partners using wrists and elbows rather strange and ungainly. With four additional cavaliers the Pas de Deux centrepiece from the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy became a pas-de-six for some reason. ‘If it ain’t broke’ sprang to mind! Did Akulinin need all his energy for his brief tarantella? Surely the teenage girls in the audience would have wanted more from this prince of hunks. The Andante ma non troppo of Kolesnikova lived up to expectation, and the Vivace assai of the coda certainly had the three-year-old seated near me waving her arms in delight, still attentive after two and a half hours. This was a show for all ages. The Apotheosis produced its own revelation: when Clara awoke, she was still donning her tiara and touching it produced a lovely smile; it all came back to her. If only all dreams could be so idyllic!

Geoff Read

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