Waitrose & Partners Weekend Issue 627

46 1 DECEMBER 2022 Weekending First performed in 1892, the two-act ballet has gone on to become a festive calendar fixture. Stuart Maconie is a fan and he picks out versions across the countryworth catching this year ‘The Nutcracker has become as much a festive fixture as Carols fromKing’s and granny having toomuch sherry’ Kids at Christmas. Typical. You go to all the trouble and expense to get them the latest Johnny Seven/Cabbage PatchKid/PS5 (delete according to generation), then they spend all day playing with the cardboard box. Twas ever thus. TakeMarie, Fritz and Louise, the Stahlblaumchildren. It’s Christmas Eve 1879 at the Stahlbaum residence and the children have just received their gifts from fascinating – but faintly sinister – inventor uncle Drosselmeyer. But, even among the amazing clockwork dancing dolls, they all really want to play with a nutcracker. And that’s where the fun has been for more than 100 years. For millions, the ballet The Nutcracker, based on ETA Ho mann’s 1816 short story, withmusic by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, has become emblematic of Christmas, as much a festive fixture as Carols fromKing’s and granny having too much sherry. Every year, scores of versions across the world bring joy andmystery to audiences. This year, there are Nutcrackers playing across Britain, including the EnglishNational Ballet’s staging at the London Coliseum, MatthewBourne’s fizzy, hyperactive take at cinemas across Britain and Sir PeterWright’s acclaimed BirminghamRoyal Ballet version. Revived and reworked for audiences at BirminghamHippodrome and the Royal Albert Hall it is, like Bourne’s, in cinemas nationwide. To use a phrase that the late DameMargot Fonteyn probably wouldn’t, The Nutcracker can be relied upon to put bums on seats. But its beginnings were inauspicious. Tchaikovsky received the commission from Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, director of Russia’s Imperial Theatres, to turnHo mann’s strange story into a two-act entertainment choreographed byMarius Petipa, the creator of Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky was unconvinced. “I like the plot very little,” he wrote at the time. Composer and director then fell out when Vsevolozhsky removed Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades from the theatre’s repertoire. Tomakematters worse, Petipa fell ill with a serious skin ailment and his deputy Lev Ivanov was drafted in to complete the choreography. The opera premiered in 1892 and got amuted response, although Tchaikovsky’s music was well received. But since a 1935 London revival and an acclaimed George Balanchine production by NewYork City Ballet in 1954, the piece has grown in reputation and, more importantly for the co ers of NUTCRACKER ballet companies and tourist boards, popular adoration. It is now perhaps themost popular ballet of all time. That’s all themore interesting when you consider what an odd story lies at its heart. Clara is given the titular nutcracker soldier doll on Christmas Eve. The nutcracker comes to life to thwart a legion of mice, led by the evil seven-headed mouse king, with the help of other animated dolls and Clara, wielding a slipper. The nutcracker then becomes a handsome prince who takes Clara to Confituremburg, the Land of Sweets, where theymeet the sugar plum fairy. After a lot of dancing (and sweets and flowers) Clara and the nutcracker are crowned the new king and queen of Confituremburg. You can see why the initial response was largely ba ement. One early review read: “The authors of ballet librettos never weary the intellect... but The Nutcracker has no story at all.” Even the ballet’s most ardent admirers acknowledge that the two acts don’t coalesce and the plot makes little sense. Audiences don’t seem tomind though, andmodern directors have relished bringing their own distinct versions to stage. It hardly seems possible that MatthewBourne’s Nutcracker! – released this year inmore than 225 cinemas nationwide – is 30 years old. This is a game of two halves. The first act relocates the fun family party to a grimDickensian orphanage, and in the second to a teeth-aching, sugar-sweet kingdomof marshmallow girls, gobstopper boys, a dancing allsorts trio, a humbug bouncer and a knickerbocker glory. The plot makes even less sense than in traditional versions but, after a starkly expressionist first act, it’s gloriously silly, pink and camp –the Golden Age of Hollywood via the late lamentedWoolworths pick ‘n’ mix counter. Sir PeterWright’s version has been substantially refurbished for its 2022-2023 revival, but remains perhaps the best regarded staging of recent decades. Originally a ‘housewarming’ gift for Birmingham to welcome The Royal Ballet company when it moved fromLondon in 1990, like Bourne’s, it’s been a festive favourite for three decades. This, though, is more sumptuously traditional – a rich, magnificent period piece withmodern twists via video projections and Simon Callow’s imperious narration. But both are delightful, and the tunes will swirl round your head like snowflakes when you return to the wintry streets. @StuartMaconie In praise of a Christmas classic THE ‘The Nutcracker has become as much a festive fixture as Carols fromKing’s and granny having toomuch sherry’