Posted on January 22, 2019
Many people consider The Nutcracker the best Christmas ballet, because it’s short, tuneful, easy to understand, and rich with roles for small children. The 1957 and 1958 television broadcasts of George Balanchine’s production for New York City Ballet launched it as a holiday favourite, but, after its first season on stage in 1954, one critic predicted: “The greatest peril [was] its box-office success.”
This year you could indulge in fantasy, romance and glitter without going near The Nutcracker. The Royal Ballet took the welcome step of programming Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs, which has lain in cold storage since 2010. Performance styles have shifted in eight years, and while focusing on careful execution, the company has lost sight of the ballet’s cheerful sweetness and the tartness of the soloists’ friendly competition. Deliberation hung heavily on the frosty atmosphere, meant to be delicate as snowflakes, as the ensemble struggled to meet the technical challenges Ashton set for the young company in 1937. Lacking either flirtatiousness or tender affection, Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell delivered the pas de deux on opening night like a couple, maybe an arranged match, fulfilling a social obligation.
Disappointing perhaps, but Les Patineurs is an ideal holiday choice and reviving it at all was a wonderful idea. A charming precursor of The Two Pigeons and La Fille mal gardée, it may have enticed those who had never seen it before to catch those ballets too.
So the idea justified itself, even if its realisation left a lot to be desired. You could say the same about the holiday entertainments by Rudolf Nureyev and Matthew Bourne in Paris and London. Good ideas drive both pieces and delight the audience, whipping our attention swiftly past the paucity of interesting choreography.
Created for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1986, Nureyev’s Cinderella packed the 2,750 seats of the Bastille Opera House through December. A colleague reminded me that John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias and Nureyev’s Swan Lake were the only other full-evening classical ballets in the company’s 2018-2019 schedule, and that people were longing for dancers in pretty costumes and pointe shoes. Though a new version of The Nutcracker, made by three choreographers, will share a programme in May with Tchaikovsky’s one-act opera, Iolanta, Cinderella brought winter fantasy to Paris, and the public waded through nearly three hours of repetitious steps to cheer it.
Why not? It’s got Hollywood in the 1930s as its setting; a stepmother, now a drag role, who looks like Paula Rego designed her and spends more time on pointe than Ashton’s Bottom; a chic dancing master, a nod to Fred Astaire’s tap duet with a coat rack; a Keystone Kops prison break; a mechanical King Kong… well, Act II takes place on the soundstage where Cinderella meets her leading man.
Nureyev declared that she’s a young woman of today who only dreams of one thing: becoming a star. Thoroughly familiar with stardom, he staged her eye-catching entrance into Hollywood, memorably, in a cloud of flashbulbs; paparazzi elbow each other aside as she arrives on the film set.
His ideas jostle for position too, especially in Act II when the powerful producer, the glossy matinée idol and all the wannabes fight for the limelight. If only his choreographic invention could have kept up with his imagination. Sleekly elegant and letter perfect, the dancers never condescended to fiddly steps that aren’t worth their effort, and their conviction gave Nureyev’s fairytale of dancemaking its substance.
By turning Swan Lake on its head in 1995, Matthew Bourne allowed thousands of viewers to get a handle on ballet, despite its intimidating reputation as an elite art, while having loads of fun. Freshly revised and revived by New Adventures, as the Christmas attraction at Sadler’s Wells it sold out fast.
The shock of it has worn off – men in roles traditionally taken by women no longer surprise anyone – and younger viewers probably missed the sly references to other ballets, but the lonely Prince drawn to the alluring Swan/Stranger still packs a theatrical punch.
Like the Paris Opéra Ballet, this company gives every movement its full weight, never skimping on energy or losing focus. Crisp in their black silk uniforms as the royal housemaids, seductive in their sequinned black gowns as the ball guests, the women swap one personality for another effortlessly, and every savage step by the male swans pounds their aggressive nature into the narrative.
The steps, however, seldom tell the story, and before the interval we’ve seen every swan shape Bourne can produce. His brilliance lies in executing clever ideas broadly, combining movement, comedy, mime, naturalistic acting and a selection of historical references. The dramatic content of each scene reaches us immediately, with the details of its expression trailing in support. Anticipating a trend he may have created himself, by sidestepping tradition and ballet’s standard vocabulary Bourne has generously paved the way to a wider enjoyment of them both.
Pictured: The Paris Opéra Ballet’s Ludmila Pagliero and Germain Louvet in Rudolf Nureyev’s Cinderella. Photograph by Yonathan Kellerman.