The Nutcracker

Alina Cojocaru as the Sugar Plum Fairy photo by Bill Cooper

The Royal Ballet: 31 December 2011

The current smothering of Nutcracker productions showing in the UK has been the subject of much critique. Articles such as We Need to Talk About the Nutcrackers (“…what can be done – what must be done – to cure this endemic, epidemic Nutcracking?”) and The Economics behind ‘The Nutcracker’ are no fairy tale (“Those little mushrooms, snowflakes, clowns, dancing rats and sugar plum fairies are the chief reason the ballet can put on shows at all”) provide a flavour of the debate which pulls us back and forth between resenting this stereotypical ballet, yet thankful for the guaranteed patronage which essentially allows for more progressive programming elsewhere in dance company seasons.

Upon sitting in the Royal Opera House waiting for the curtain to rise on the Royal Ballet’s production two things occurred:

(1) The number of performances (the Royal Ballet are doing 27) allow for varied casting choices (there are 6 different Clara casts) which is mutually beneficial for both the audience and the dancers who may otherwise be hidden in the corps with rare opportunity to emerge; and

(2) There are children in the audience, and this makes The Nutcracker an immensely important occurrence. Could our ballet companies continue to attract children (and their parents) with an alternative ballet? Theoretically, yes. Realistically? I suspect not or companies (I’m sure) would shorten their Nutcracker runs.

Selfishly, I’d prefer an alternative offering. Selflessly, we’re doing it for the kids. If only The Tales of Beatrix Potter or Alice in Wonderland had a 30ft Christmas tree.

But then lets admit, we all enjoy the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince, and in this performance the Royal Ballet offer up a couple of angels on their tree in the form of Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg.

Cojocaru’s Sugar Plum is not on automatic. She approaches it as though it is a new-found object, a discovery that reveals much more than it may have previously. Fascinating to watch the way she unexpectedly emphasises and accentuates certain steps, transfixing her audience to her every move. In the pas de deux her developpe a la seconde with her back to the audience gently supported by Kobborg, is remarkable not for its height (neither grotesque nor flashy but supremely placed) but for the slow and controlled way her leg unfolds, squeezing out every moment of Tchaikovsky’s music as it makes its way up. It is in part Kobborg’s harmonious partnering of Cojocaru, which allows such luxuriousness in her movement.

A magical partnership – I would sit through 27 Nutcracker’s to see Cojocaru dance.

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Manon

Manon Lauren Cuthbertson & Sergei Polunin Photo by Tristram Kenton

The Royal Ballet: 8 November 2011

Manon is a role every royal ballet dancer wants to dance. And so when it is gifted to a dancer, a debut is a time of anticipation, a time of fear, a time of exploration and a time of admiration for all the dancers who have gone before. It is really only after the debut, that a dancer can really understand the role, that a dancer can shred the anticipation of the milestone.

This evening was a double debut, with the fearless Lauren Cuthbertson as Manon and rising star Sergei Polunin in the technically difficult non-bravura role of Des Grieux. When the ballet debuted in 1974 one critic described the role of Manon as a ‘slut’ and Des Grieux as a ‘fool’.

In the first Act we see the fool in Polunin, the earnest bookworm transfixed by the slightly more worldly Manon. Polunin’s first difficult solo is achieved with relative ease, though this solo often makes for uncomfortable viewing, the choreography revealing the slightest nerve, the slightest off balance. In Scene Two in Des Grieux’s lodgings in Paris the bedroom pas de deux is danced with such speed and daring, the result of which is a premature climax rather than the building of a passionate love for each other.

It is the genius of Macmillian’s choreography that comes to the fore in the Second Act as Manon is handed around – each man wanting his piece of her. Des Greiux watches from the sidelines, torn and distraught at the sight of Manon being flaunted before his eyes. With Polunin’s heart on his sleeve, his large eyes and dramatic stage presence it is him I am drawn to and his heartbreak I follow; despite him not dancing a step. We do not see the obvious slut in Cuthbertson’s Manon in this Act, rather she conveys Manon’s conflicts through her physicality – her expressive arms and upper body and her light extension. In Manon everyone has a price, and in Cuthbertsons reading, her price is low. We do not sense her prostitution has come at any great cost.

It is in Act 3 that Cuthbertson comes to the fore. We are drawn into her despair, her ability to make every step she takes look as though she thought of it only as she steps out of it. In the years to come I look forward to following her maturation in this role – it is through her brilliant technical execution and appetite for daring, that will in time, I hope, lead to a fascinating portrayal of the flawed Manon.

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