Review – Nutcracker – Northern Ballet, Grand Theatre Leeds 2010

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Every Christmas I have three theatrical traditions I celebrate: seeing “A Christmas Carol,” watching Clive Rowe in the Hackney Panto, and going to a new version of the Nutcracker. I’ve seen City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Mark Morris, and Matthew Bourne’s version, among others; I am a real Nutcracker fan. I love the music; I love the endless possibilities of the suite; I struggle gamely through Act One hoping that whatever version I see will finally manage to make some sense of the music.This year Nutcrackers are thin on the ground in London, so I was obliged to do a bit of travelling in order to see Northern Ballet’s version. Still, Leeds isn’t that far away, East Cost does nice early purchase deals, so off I went for a balletic field trip to the north … in the middle of some of the most extreme weather England has seen in early December in decades. Brrr!

The Leeds Grand was an absolutely gorgeous venue, just like being inside a jewelry box, with gilding and carved detail everywhere I looked (and a bar with stained glass windows, so pretty!). It was also more intimate that some of the ballet houses in London, more the size of Sadler’s Wells. Sadly the snow seemed to have chased a lot of people away (Black Watch had the same problem the night before), but the cast had all made it and we started pretty close to 7PM in spite of the weather.

To my great relief as the curtain opened, I saw that this production had an adult Clara (Isabella Gasparini) from the very start, so the pain of an entire act performed in great deal by child dancers was avoided. Whew! The first bit was done in front of a drop as if in the hallway of Edwards’ home outside the dining room, with Clara and her brother Frederic (Ashley Dixon, consistently good) bickering over toys while Grandpa (Tobias Batley) napped in a chair and the maids ran in and out of the back room setting up for the meal. Most of the dancing in this section was very light – it was mostly about establishing character.

At last we were allowed into the great room for a big party that featured a love interest (the previously unheared of “Clara’s sister, Louise,” played by Lori Gilchrist, and “Louise’s friend, James,” Martin Bell) and, of course, the arriver of Drosselmeyer (Michal Berkin). This was a very different Drosselmeier from what I was used to – young, tall, handsome, long blond hair, and a big purple, sparkly cape. He seemed like a cross between the Mad Hatter and Willie Wonka – both as played by Johnny Depp. He had none of the creepy evil that many Drosselmeyers have, instead seeming rather as if he was made of cotton candy and glitter.

This was, I think, true of the ballet as a whole. Clara seemed to smile too much and have no other emotions; the mouse king never seemed truly threatening; the entire element of Clara “becoming a woman” (crossing over from love of dolls to love of boys) seemed to completely vanish from the plotline. Ah well, it was hard to complain, though, with such a perfect set and costume design to highlight all of the meringue of a plot. Act one had dance variations of two sets of dolls, one the French dolls (much more attractive as harlequins, I think) and a Chinese doll (Giuiano Contandini) who disappointingly didn’t do much more than flop around on the stage. I actually enjoy the way this bit often feels like the spooky evil magician of Petrushka is actually playing with doomed spirits for the amusement of children, but these seemed not particularly tragic. Ah well.

The Christmas tree failed (for the first time ever!) to expand magically as Clara fell asleep, but when her nutcracker cast away his giant head we got Yoshihisa Arai, whose very few opportunities to dance unencumbered showed a strong sense of style which he generally quite politely contained in the bounds of his character. Eventually I caught myself just ignoring Clara and looking for him – was he going to give one of those great leaps again while I wasn’t paying attention?

The Suites were … well, choreographed … unexcitingly. The Spanish dance didn’t have any real flamenco in it but was at least not offensively off; the Arabian dance (a woman borne aloft by two bare-chested men) was mostly about stretching and balancing; the Chinese dance and the Russian dance had music blasting full of energy overwhelming the actual movement on stage. Clara kept jumping into the dances – a nice touch of personality – but what I really would have liked to see is the power of what I was hearing matched by what I was seeing. I loved the unified look of it all, with the blue and white Chinese porcelain decorating Clara and the Nutcracker Prince’s pavilion – but I think in order to be a really good Nutcracker, it’s going to need a lot more work with what’s happening on stage. In short, it was a pleasant enough evening, but not a Nutcracker I’ll be using as a reference point for future performances of this classic work. It’s very family friendly, though, so I would recommend people who have the opportunity to see it do so.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 2nd, 2010 at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. It continues there through December 12th.)

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2 Responses to “Review – Nutcracker – Northern Ballet, Grand Theatre Leeds 2010”

  1. Tweets that mention Review – Nutcracker – Northern Ballet, Grand Theatre Leeds 2010 « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by webcowgirl, Leeds Grand Theatre. Leeds Grand Theatre said: RT@webcowgirl: My review of Northern Ballet's Nutcracker http://bit.ly/hQ3188 worth seeing but – and now off to Matthew Bourne's Cinderella! […]

  2. Mrs Christine Callaghan Says:

    I totally agree with this review although I would have liked to have read some comments about the Waltz of the Flowerrs (not very enchanting in my opinion) and the Dance of the Snowflakes (which I found to be really disappointing and the costumes were too blue and wrongly designed). I thought that these two parts in particular lacked the “magic and awe” of previous performances I have seen. Indeed, on leaving the theatre, I felt much less moved by the Nutcracker than in past years. PERFORMANCE: Matinee – Thursday 9th December 2010)

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