Dancing your way to a cracking Christmas
If you're still wondering whether or not it's OK to start feeling festive, think no more: Christmas officially starts with the opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker.
Attending the yearly rendition is a tradition every family should fit into their advent calender - dressing in your winter best for a nippy trip to the bustling Hippodrome to be greeted by Birmingham school choirs singing carols cannot fail to fill you with warmth and excitement.
Friday night's performance was another example of how Birmingham's much-loved ballet company consistently deliver a production which can both delight ballet newcomers and keep young families gripped, while adding new twists and stage antics to please the ballet veterans.
The choreography based on Sir Peter Wright's production with the company nearly 20 years ago just after it had moved from Sadler's Wells, is light-footed and peppered with enchanting duets - the crisp movements and large corps de ballet pieces are visual treats which the company dance with effortless precision and ease.
This year's designs by John Macfarlane are moody in luxe rouges and Victorian styles - giving a darker edge to the story of a magician who takes young Clara from her family Christmas to an unknown world of international sweets and dreamy illusion. The opening scene feels a little dated and drab, but this lack of exuberance is a deliberate precursor to The Transformation scene.
The audience needs to leave the dull reality of the living room and be transported to the Drosselmeyer's world of imaginary wonder - this is marked famously on stage by the growth of the Christmas tree to 50ft to make Clara appear Borrower-sized - executed superbly by the 50-strong team backstage in a crescendo of objects being magnified. Finally, the fireplace looms as a huge burning furnace and the comedy motorised rats are replaced by human-sized hairy menaces dressed exquisitely in court armour. The transformation is complete, and as the cannonball cracks to the musical climax to audience erupts in excited applause.
The production capitalises on the audience's hunger for acrobatic tricks and visual pyrotechnics. After the interval, the curtain rises to Clara flying 60ft through the air on the back of a goose, greeted by another wave of applause. Carol Ann Miller dances Clara with vitality and verve - portraying the child in love as a woman in awe of Dr Drosselmeyer's creations. The darker side to the story is revealed by Robert Parker as the suave magician, adding a layer of potential love for the girl, who when stripped of her nightgown by the rats reveals the vulnerability of her virgin innocence. This deeper insight into the story injects the production with human detail to turn the Christmas classic into an all-rounded ballet which not only pleases the eye but the mind.
Every little girl will long to be the Sugar Plum Fairy, the grand pas de deux danced to perfection by Nao Sukuma and princely Chi Cao (above). Accompanied by the magical score by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker is the must-see show of the season and a festive treat for all generations.
The Nutcracker returns to its home theatre, Birmingham Hippodrome, for 22 performances only, from Friday 27 November to Sunday 13 December 2009. To book tickets or to find out more visit Birmingham Royal Ballet's website or www.birminghamhippodrome.com.