THE NUTCRACKER is a celebration of youth through a belief in magic, and what time of year is more magical than the festive season for such a staging. It is then no surprise that the Cape Town City Ballet has chosen this as its family friendly ballet to enchant young and old at the Artscape Opera House until 23 December 2022.
While THE NUTCRACKER is generally now referred to as a Tchaikovsky ballet, it came to be thanks to the Imperial Russian Ballet choreographer, Marius Petipa, who in 1891 commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose a score inspired by the story of ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ by E.T.A. Hoffman (a slightly problematic fantasy), but focussing more on the version as adapted by Alexandre Dumas that is more suited for a younger audience and downplays the overt subjugation issues associated with Hoffman’s telling.
As much loved as this ballet is today, when THE NUTCRACKER premiered in 1892 it was a flop: many viewed it as boring and argued that there was no connection between Act One and Act Two. Yet, today it is a true classic. Somehow, the one-time flop has become much beloved and has captured the imagination of many generations since.
THE NUTCRACKER was in fact brought to full glory in America in 1954, when George Balanchine reinvigorated audience interest in the ballet with his choreographed version for the New York City Ballet, as a celebration of the ballet he learnt as a young boy at the Mariinsky Theatre (the same theatre where the ballet was first performed in St Petersburg those many years before). One could argue that the fact that Walt Disney used Tchaikovsky’s score for his 1940’s FANTASIA did not hurt either.
Here we are now, 130 years later, and THE NUTCRACKER still invites audiences to share in the charm of a family’s Christmas Eve celebrations: So when Clara, the young girl at the center of it all, is gifted a nutcracker that is charmed to life as a prince in her dreams to fight off the Mouse King and his cohorts so that he can whisk Clara off on a fairy-tale adventure in the Kingdom of Sweets, audiences easily and eagerly embrace the escapism that this journey promises. The current staging of THE NUTCRACKER, presented by the Cape Town City Ballet, is no exception, and leans heavily on this traditional core of the beloved family ballet treat.
With its family focus, THE NUTCRACKER is one of the few classical ballets that have a large number of children as part of the professional company. The current production’s young corps de ballet component has enough cuteness to power the magic of a 1000 sugar plum fairies, and then some. The young dancers are enchanting, while the adult professionals in the company are also captivating as they prance up a Christmas treat for all to behold.
Some of the Cape Town City Ballet performances of THE NUTCRACKER have the added bonus of live accompaniment by the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. If you are lucky enough to book for one of those nights, try and choose a seat that allows you to see into the orchestra pit: The calibre of musicians are fantastic and hearing them warm up as people take their seats in the Opera House brings its own type of magical appeal.
With this current staging, I was again reminded that Act One does tend to feel longer than it should be (at times I can understand why the original was viewed as a bit of a toil), but who doesn’t like some festive dancing and gifting around the Christmas tree to soothe their inner Grinch, so the lack of grand scale ballet at the start is forgiven for the charm and mystique it holds regardless.
Act Two has all the Tchaikovsky hits that most of us think of with fondness when it comes to THE NUTCRACKER. The Snow Queen (Hannah Ward) and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kirstel Paterson) are exquisite and they encapsulate every little ballerina’s dream. They hold their own on stage with great presence and stunning technique. The roles are danced by different performers depending on the night, but I am sure all will be equally as captivating as Ward and Paterson, with the same being true of the role of the Nutcracker Prince, rotating also.
On opening night there were a few hiccups, and there appeared to be a need for a touch more trust between the Nutcracker Prince (Lêusson Muniz) and his leading ladies, but much is forgiven when you allow yourself to get swept up by the festive cheer and uplifting music that encapsulates it all..
All that magic and charm aside, I would betray my conscience if I didn’t point out that the performance does lean in to some of the still problematic aspects of THE NUTCRACKER, especially when the performance style appears to be more traditional in the Balanchine sense: it sadly has some issues when it comes to cultural depictions. THE NUTCRACKER simply does not age well when one considers the layered insensitivity that Act Two invites when viewed in a modern context. The continued employ of Chinese, Arabic and Russian stereotypes and the degree to which the associated caricatures are still relied upon in the current staging left me feeling a bit uneasy: it invites an element of guilt into my general enjoyment of the production.
The current production is not as offensive as past stagings around the world have been (for example, luckily no use of comical moustaches here), but the movements are still very other focussed in feel rather than embracing the celebration of diversity that Act Two can be. This is perhaps an opportunity for ballet-lovers, young and old, to reflect on the everyday complexity that accompanies the enchantment of the classic THE NUTCRACKER and invite discussion as to what needs to change to ensure its continued festive season enjoyment for future generations in an equally dignified and respectful manner, as a true ballet celebration for all.
As we find ourselves in the season of goodwill towards all, let us cling to the hope of the good luck symbol that is a nutcracker: may it frighten away any spiteful spirits and Mouse Kings that may wish to spoil your festive cheer.
You have until 23 December 2022 to see the Snow Queen, the Sugar Plum Fairy and everyone’s favourite good luck warrior dance up a storm in THE NUTCRACKER at the Artscape Opera House. Tickets are available online through Computicket.