Scottish Ballet: The Nutcracker, review: ‘A revolutionary production of a Christmas classic’

·3-min read
Principal Marge Hendrick as The Sugar Plum Fairy - Andy Ross
Principal Marge Hendrick as The Sugar Plum Fairy - Andy Ross

In 1892, when The Nutcracker was first staged, its stylistically globe-trotting Act II was probably the nearest most audience members were ever going to get to a modern-day “gap yar”. The exoticism that traditionally drives some of those international divertissements has inevitably started to feel particularly dated of late.

And last month – following both New York City Ballet’s 2017 example, and a recent anti-racism review of its own work – Scottish Ballet made headlines by announcing that it was going to make various culturally sensitive tweaks to its 1973 production, along with introducing one extra, very different novelty (more of which later).

The first night of this revival, at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, revealed these changes to be both subtle and respectful. Gone are the “queue” ponytails (which, historically, symbolised submission to the Manchu rule) of the two women who perform the Chinese dance, along with the hats (which evoked Mongolia, rather than China) and even the pointe shoes. Annie Au, an expert in Chinese “fan dance”, has also worked with the two dancers – Alice Kawalek Kayla-Maree Tarantolo, both excellent – to ensure that the choreography now pays tribute to that millennia-old tradition rather than crassly aping it.

As for the Arabian dance, the Aladdin-style baggy pants are now things of the past, highlighting the very elegant, very chaste tutu. I wonder if, while they’re scrubbing things up, Scottish Ballet might also ditch the quartet of fellows who initially remove the long strips of silk around the lone dancer – the lyrical Roseanna Leney – at the start (as well as ferrying her off at the end) – a dash of the Dance of the Seven Veils there, besides which the solo would stand up just fine without those bookends. Still, all steps in the right direction, and with zero artistic fall-out – nicely done.

While some onlookers might nevertheless barely register these tweaks, the other innovation is impossible to miss. I have never before seen Drosselmeyer – the mysterious magician who turns up at young Clara and Fritz’s Christmas Eve party – played by a woman. (The company is alternating between male and female on different nights.)

Chloe Macduff as Clara - Andy Ross
Chloe Macduff as Clara - Andy Ross

Although you could perhaps argue that it’s “inauthentic” – in that both the original 1892 ballet and 1816 ETA Hoffmann story that inspired it have him as a man – who cares, provided the performance has the required brio? The top-hatted-and-caped Madeline Squire takes both the role, and Act I, completely by the scruff of the neck, radiating charisma and something quite like Cabaret-style glamour, too.

For the rest, this is a bijou production compared with the eye-popping splendour of the Royal Ballet’s and BRB’s stagings. Also, coming fresh from the Royal's 1984 version, I missed producer Peter Wright’s clever plotting, and the extent to which he gets Clara, Fritz and Drosselmeyer involved in Act II – after her bravura Act I, you felt Squire’s near-complete absence thereafter.

That said, Lez Brotherston’s sets – introduced when the production was re-mounted back in 2014 – are tastefully scrumptious, the production’s relative intimacy undeniably has its own charm, and the house orchestra makes Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score soar. If some of the dancing is good rather than great, the leads sparkle as they should, and the whole enterprise has just the right sense of collective fun and purpose.

Two further special mentions. One, for Thomas Edwards’s English Dance – this isn’t a “divert” you’ll see at Covent Garden, and he delivers it with show-stopping ease and musicality. The other, for nine-year-old Caoimhe Fisher, whose wide-eyed but un-cutesy performance as Clara never faltered, and must have helped draw the many beaming young audience members into this very classy, impeccably Christmassy evening’s entertainment.

The Nutcracker is in Edinburgh until December 31, then touring Scotland, the North and to Belfast until mid-February. Tickets and details: scottishballet.co.uk

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