One of the great festive traditions of Christmas is a visit to a pantomime or family show and, in my opinion, there’s none quite so magical as The Nutcracker.
With an iconic musical score (even if you’re not classically trained, you’ll be amazed how much of it you recognise), it tells a charming “Night before Christmas” tale, as little girl Clara awakes at midnight and, after a scary encounter with warring rats, is whisked off to a dreamy Land Of Sweets where she is treated to a festival of dance from all corners of the world – from Spanish fandango to fast and furious Cossacks. Of course, the Sugar Plum Fairy is one of ballet’s best-loved tunes (even though you have to wait till well into Act II for the prima ballerina to appear…and the dance itself is the epitome of short and sweet).
This year, my 17-year-old daughter Grace is about to see The Nutcracker for the 15th time. We went to our first matinee performance at the London Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane in 1998, and Grace, coming up for her third birthday, wore a pink tutu, sparkly shoes and a knitted cashmere ballet wrap, her hair in bowed pigtails (and they really were like pigtails, all cute and curly!). We were seated in the stage box – officially deemed “restricted view” as you couldn’t see the entire stage, but for a tiddler, who watched the proceedings leaning over the balcony on tippytoes, it was perfect. We were in such close proximity to the spectacle that it almost felt like you could reach out and touch the dancers. We also got a perfect bird’s-eye-view of the live orchestra below in the pit, with Grace entranced by the elegant lady plucking theatrically on a giant golden harp and the percussionist creating big booming beats on his giant timpani drums.
Over the years, we’ve seen some splendid productions by the English National Ballet. In 1999, we also saw a production in Boston, where we were seated up in the gods (last-minute booking) with ‘friends and family’. After the show, a proud father of one of the ensemble proclaimed the Boston Nutcracker to be “the best in the world”, to which Grace piped up “It was better in London. They had Barbie.” (We’d just seen the version where modern toys were bestowed upon Clara and friends, including a Barbie and a Michael Jackson lookalike doll).
Other memorable performances of The Nutcracker have included the brilliant Liquorice Allsorts dancing sweeties, and the magnificent Gerald Scarfe set designs and costumes where the dancers wore curly-wurly wigs that resembled characters from Dr Seuss Whoville, and fluttering snowflake dancers leapt from a giant fridge
The 2014 performance promises to be a more traditional affair, with the return of the English National Ballet’s former Artistic Director Wayne Eagling’s version, originally created in 2010 to celebrate the Company’s 60th birthday. Set in a world of frosty Edwardian elegance, it’s filled with gorgeous costumes bedecked with sparkling Swarovski crystals.
We’ve only ever had one negative experience when an elderly lady tut-tutted her disapproval as Grace chirped along with the choral accompaniment to ‘The Waltz of The Snowflakes’ (that year we were seated in the dress circle). It was the same year as another of our highlights: not only had Grace met Angelina Ballerina (who was the mouse mascot for the ENB, and a champion of youngsters at the ballet), we also saw Irek Mukhamedov, the Nureyev of his generation, dance as the magician Drosselmeyer. As he took his final bow, Grace gave him an enthusiastic school-girl standing ovation, and he responded with a dramatic flourish and blew her a kiss!
Long may our love affair with The Nutcracker continue, and I hope that one day I’ll be attending with the next generation in tow, too.
Why go To create your own fabulous festive family tradition and give your child a first taste of live performance arts.
Who is it best for Let’s not be sexist here. Although girls may well have a propensity for pirouettes, ballet is for boys too.
Top Tip Familiarise your child with some of the musical score and the storyline beforehand, as familiarity breeds contentment. And if you plan to make it an annual activity, don’t forget to take a photograph every year, as it will make a lovely souvenir that records how your child changes over the years – not least in their fashion sense. My daughter has gone from frothy tutus to skinny jeans and Converse combo.
Our favourite bit The vocal chorus during The Waltz Of The Snowflakes, and Act II with all its brilliant vignettes inspired by different country’s national dances.
Don’t go If your child is likely to get restless during the two-hour plus performance. Instead, opt for one of the ENB’s My First Ballet performances; a brilliant initiative that’s aimed at young children, with audience participation and heckling encouraged! The performance for 2015 will be Swan Lake, which tours the UK from 2 April–23 May 2015.
While You’re There The London Coliseum is a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square, so don’t forget to visit the Christmas Tree in the Square. Standing at over 20 feet tall, the tree has been donated by the city of Oslo, Norway, each year since 1947 as a token of gratitude for Britain’s support of Norway during the Second World War. It will take pride of place in Trafalgar Square until January 6, with daily carol singing and festivities too.
The English National Ballet’s production of The Nutracker is at the London Coliseum 11 December–4 January 2015. The performance runs for approximately two hours and 15 minutes one 25-minute interval.
NOTE: The Nutcracker is recommended for children aged five years plus. There is, however, one family-friendly matinee performance on 4 January 2015 at 2:30pm where children under five can attend, with up to two children under 16 free with each full-paying adult. The website carries a sage warning: “Please note there will be lots of small children at this performance!”
About The Nutcracker
This famous two-act ballet, with musical score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is based on German author ETA Hoffman’s tale The Nutcracker And The Mouse King. It was given its première at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 18 December 1892, as part of a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta.
The first performance of The Nutcracker was not deemed a success. Whilst some critics praised the production’s prima ballerina Antonietta Dell’Era on her pointework as the Sugar Plum Fairy (she allegedly received five curtain-calls), one critic called her “corpulent” and “pudgy”.
However, The Nutcracker has enjoyed enormous popularity since the late 1960s and is now performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season. The English National Ballet has performed twelve different productions since its first full-length Nutcracker in its founding year of 1950. The ENB has established the tradition of performing The Nutcracker every single Christmas since then.
Did you know?
* Although the score for The Nutcracker is among Tchaikovsky’s best-loved music, the composer was said to detest it.
* The original choreographer, French-Russian Ballet Master of the Mariinsky Theatre, Marius Petipa, wanted the Sugar Plum Fairy’s music to sound like “drops of water shooting from a fountain”. Tchaikovsky used the newly-invented celesta, which produced the distinctive delicate piano-meets-glockenspiel, to create – in Tchaikovsky’s words – the perfect “divinely wonderful sound.”
* Perhaps a not-so-surprising incarnation of the Sugar Plum Fairy came in 2001, when Barbie appeared in her first feature film Barbie In The Nutcracker. Though the film heavily altered the story, it still made use of ballet sequences which had been rotoscoped using real ballet dancers.
* In 2007, famous cat-and-mouse duo Tom And Jerry also starred in their own animated Nutcracker Tale, with musical accompaniment by The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.