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Gerald Dowler sees a new production of The Nutcracker in Toulouse

Posted on January 4, 2018

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Kader Belarbi continues to fight for classical ballet in Toulouse, his particular corner of France, where, fortunately, the local politicians support his efforts and see the city’s dance ensemble, the Ballet du Capitole, as a jewel in its cultural crown. As a gift back to Toulouse and his audience, for Christmas 2017 Belarbi created a brand-new production of The Nutcracker, and, while not every element can be said to be wholly successful, it remains a strong statement by him, his company and the host community’s belief in the power, beauty and relevance of classical dancing.

This new Nutcracker is, unsurprisingly, a very French affair, the whole aesthetic shot through with a national love of the circus, mime and the absurd. Fantastical stage pictures and concepts abound as Belarbi, and his stage and costume designers Antoine Fontaine and Philippe Guillotel, set about a new telling of the story. In their world, the Stahlbaums’ get-together becomes Christmas at a boarding school (echoes, here, of Matthew Bourne’s orphanage); marauding mice are exchanged for scuttling spiders and the Kingdom of the Sweets is an almost Pythonesque romp through various national tableaux as Marie (Clara) and her Nutcracker doll progress towards their transformation into ballet princess and cavalier for a version of the Grand Pas de deux.

It’s a fairly coherent re-imagining, with the members of this likeable company having a ball as excitable school children and changing costumes and personas as the story progresses. Drosselmeyer is the school principal, clearly invested with magical powers, acting as puppet master in bringing Marie and the Nutcracker together, although quite why he does so is less apparent. That said, he and we have considerable fun along the way, not least with the creation of the bossy sub-principal character, danced with glee by Alexandra Surodeeva, who is clearly besotted with the headmaster and is transformed into the Queen of the Snowflakes in Act II.

The second act becomes rather more disjointed as the narrative falters and the stagecraft veers towards the clunky, with large boxes opened in turn to provide the setting for each national dance. There are superb ideas, from the huge, inflated body suits of the Arabian dance – the nine dancers, when lined up, each form a segment of a massive caterpillar – to the Stakhanovite factory of the Russian. Other dances miss the mark, and quite why the Spanish dancers should be dressed as frogs with webbed feet and hands is anybody’s guess.

Within this zany world, principal Natalia de Froberville stands out as Marie, a feisty tomboy in ginger pigtails from the off, brimming with character and vim, and effortlessly combining childlike jumps and stomps with pointe work, pirouettes and balances. She acts as a thread throughout the sometimes convoluted storyline, and transforms with ease into the ballerina of the Grand Pas de deux, although somewhat disconcertingly still sporting a carrot-coloured wig. It’s a shame Belarbi has provided an unflattering “Sugar Plum” solo for her, coming up with movements too weighty and expansive for its sparkling music. Having spent most of the ballet as an ever-grinning Nutcracker doll, and large part of that without a right arm, Ramiro Gómez Samón seemed relieved finally to have a full complement of limbs and don a prince’s tights and jerkin for the pas de deux, exhibiting a strong and smooth technique and impressive partnering skills.

The Orchestre national du Capitole is one of France’s finest and, with Koen Kessels’ sensitive and expansive conducting, sounded nothing short of glorious. The opera house’s large orchestra pit allows for warm, integrated symphonic sound in Tchaikovsky’s brilliant composition, which makes Belarbi’s decision to chop the score about all the more inexplicable. The programme extols the sophistication and integrity of the music, yet Belarbi again and again makes it stop and start, inserting electronic sounds and tinny pre-recorded snatches of what we have just heard into the live orchestral playing. The grandeur, sweep and structure of the music is compromised by this questionable decision, as it is by the re-ordering of some of the major numbers: the Waltz of the Snowflakes no longer closes Act I but precedes the Grand Pas de deux; the Waltz of the Flowers is now moved to open the second act. These musical decisions make little or no sense, and detract from the enjoyment of anyone familiar with the ravishing score. It is unfortunate, given the general success of the production and the engagement and quality of the Toulouse dancers.

Photographs by David Herrero.

Gerald Dowler writes for the Financial Times, Ballet 2000 and several dance publications and websites. His articles have included appreciations of both Bronislava Nijinska and Antony Tudor and he has interviewed extensively for Dancing Times. He teaches at the City of London School.

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