The quintessential Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker, is so beloved by companies and audiences that it is an annual event in some parts of the world. Since the Royal New Zealand Ballet has not staged The Nutcracker since former Artistic Director Gary Harris’ 2010 production, New Zealand audiences are overdue for this festive delight. In an odd twist of scheduling, The Nutcracker opened in Wellington on Halloween.
Val Caniparoli, like most people in the ballet world, has plenty of experience with The Nutcracker, both as a dancer and as a choreographer. This production is based on the ETA Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and draws inspiration from Christensen brothers (Lew and Willam) and their treatment of The Nutcracker traditions and vaudeville background. Case in point: the detailed and expressive interpretation of toymaker Herr Drosselmeier, danced on opening night by Ballet Master Nicholas Schultz, a role that Caniparoli was coached in by Lew Christensen and which he continues to perform today.
Act One of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production is truly magical. Set and lighting by Michael Auer and Jon Buswell combine projection and props to facilitate enchantingly swift changes of scene, populated by delightful detail. There is a good dose of theatricality with set pieces moving independently and an entertaining illusion entrance by the Sugar Plum and Cavalier Dolls. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hamish McKeith, provide a masterful and rich interpretation of the familiar Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky score, while the women of the Orpheus Choir of Wellington surprise and delight when they stand and sing from the box seats. For children in the audience, Act One would be absolutely enchanting and it’s lovely to appreciate the transformative power of the theatre by imagining it through their eyes.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet have cast over three hundred children nationwide for The Nutcracker, and the young dancers are generously integrated into the choreography, with plenty of dancing and stage time. Shanwen Tan as Fritz Stahlbaum is the standout, with comic timing so successful he is single-handedly responsible for spontaneous laughter and applause from the audience. An army of mice, brilliantly costumed and led by Mouse King Loughlan Prior, are thoroughly entertaining if not particularly menacing. Kirby Selchow as the Maid once again proves her versatility and strength among the company dancers, with detailed physical characterisation and engaging energy.
The iconic snow scene which closes the first act has no shortage of the white stuff, and by the final moments the Snowflakes are dancing through centimeters of snow. Although I am one for the traditional aesthetic of pancake tutus for the Snowflakes, the effect is still a resplendent white Christmas, sparkly and crisp.
Act Two of The Nutcracker has less impact, with a simpler set and a very basic storyline. This is mediated somewhat by a sequence of divertissements, and I appreciate the decision to present the cultural dances as gifts from surrounding nations: Spanish Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, French Pastilles and Russian Caviar. This is a modern and sweet interpretation of the intention and function of the roles, without the outdated cultural appropriation which has been problematic in the past. Dancing Arabian Coffee, Abigail Boyle and Loughlan Prior provide the greatest chemistry of the evening, and a welcome sense of choreographic fluidity and sophistication. Sara Garbowski as Dewdrop is especially strong, and delivers a pique pirouette diagonal as quick and neat as you’ll see anywhere. Russian Caviar, danced by Massimo Margaria, Joseph Skelton and Laurynas Vėjalis are an audience favourite, as are the Pōhutukawa Flowers giving a moment of New Zealand flavour.
Costumes by Artistic Director Patricia Barker are colourful but not always connected with one another. The Sugar Plum Fairy (Nadia Yanowsky) and her Cavalier (Paul Mathews) are usually presented in coordinated colour palettes, and their dissonance is enhanced by an absence of onstage expressive chemistry during the grand pas. Mathews provides solid partnering within some challenging choreography, and although Yanowsky’s fouettes lack some polish, her manèges is controlled and quick.
Caniparoli’s ensemble choreography is interesting, challenging and dense. At its best in larger corps de ballet sections, it exposes the need for tighter unison in pas de trois, and articulation of detail in soloist moments. The Opera House’s raked stage contributed to some issues with control on opening night, mostly in dancers alighting from pirouettes. The limited stage space is surely a challenge, particularly in Act One, and the company will no doubt appreciate the larger spaces on offer at other centres on The Nutcracker tour.
The Nutcracker offers a magical production for audiences of all ages to see, but definitely stronger in the first act. It should get stronger as the season progresses.
The Nutcracker opened on 31st October in Wellington and is being toured nationally. It plays Auckland’s The Civic 6-9th December.