The Nutcracker, like Dickens, seems to embody Christmas. Showings of The Great Escape may be intermittent, but we can always rely on Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and that Russian Dance to get us in the mood. The Royal Ballet's traditional interpretation of this great classic is a visually stunning and completely enthralling experience. Unlike many other (entertaining) Christmas diversions (Shrek, for example) the Royal Opera House genuinely seem to offer something quite magical. And, as ever with The Nutcracker, the real test is the reaction of the audience aged below 15. Amidst a sea of small girls in ballerina dresses imitating the Sugar Plum Fairy and wee lads pretending to be mechanical soldiers, it seems clear that this performance gets a definite 'thumbs up'.
The story is a perfect childlike mixture of the visually appealing, the slightly sinister and the playful. It's a story full of malevolent mice, mechanical soldiers, dancing sweets and spritely fairies. Initially, the viewer's eye gets completely lost amidst the festive clutter of Christmas: the brilliant muddle of presents, the extravagant dresses and the magic tricks. It's a delight to unpick all this childlike detail: the dotting house keeper; the hyper-active children; the grandparents attempting to get in on the fun and getting exhausted in the process.
The initially quaint bourgeois living room is then transformed into a magical battleground between the mice and the innocent Clara with her toy soldiers and trusty nutcracker. The Christmas tree rises to awesome heights before the audiences' eyes, shrinking our young heroine as she enters a world of magic. This is all tremendously fun and exciting - even for a 24-year-old cynic.
Having its roots in Gothic romanticism, its hardly surprising there's a few sinister tones in this tale. Indeed, Tchaikovsky seems to have borrowed from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Tree, and was generally a great admirer of the Victorian author. In Dickens's tale, the narrator, like Clara, is the only person awake at the end of the Christmas festivities. Like all children, a sense of wonder and curiosity seems to intersect with an excited fear of the unknown: the Christmas tree, which is surrounded by toys, comes across as 'a demonical Counsellor in a black gown' for Dickens. For a moment, 'the very tree itself changes, and becomes a bean-stalk - the marvellous beanstalk up which Jack climbed to the Giant's house!' and 'all common things become uncommon and enchanted'. Indeed there is no denying the darker tones in The Nutcracker. The magician Drosselmeyer especially, while fun and playful, has a definite malevolent edge to him. And what is more disconcerting to the happy family than the idea of a household transformed; a living room into a battlefield; a Christmas tree symbolising festivity into something pagan and supernatural?
Complaining, as many critics did initially, of a lack of grown up coherence amidst this psychological flight of fantasy seems to forget that the target audience are children. One critic highlighted how the ballet proved a hard box office nut to crack: 'for dancers there is rather little in it, for art, absolutely nothing, and for the artistic destiny of our ballet - one more stepdownward.'
Yes, much of the choreography remains slightly too literal and perhaps a bit clunky; yes the plot is not entirely seamless; yes, the music often seems disjointed. Yet tinkering too much with The Nutcracker -- as several productions have done this year -- is a risky business. The Nutcracker is something we all know and love (and, let's be honest, expect); modernising and overhauling it for tired adult eyes risks alienating the very people the ballet was initially designed for. These are not, after all, dancers on stage, they are fairies and giant rodents; this is not carefully rehearsed choreography, it's magic; and, er, 'mummy what's all this about "art"? Look at the giant Christmas tree!'
Indeed amidst the land of Snow and the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets, the Royal Ballet's production is one big feast of visual and musical delight. Now, as ever, this is a production that ignites young imaginations and spreads a very childlike joy. In an age dominated by the cold screen of television or the internet, this is a rare feat. The Royal Opera House provides a perfect medley of pyrotechnics and engineering; short, colourful and distinct dances and brilliant displays of sartorial elegance laced with just a hint of the sinister.
The Royal Opera House will be showing The Nutcracker until January 18