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An unconventional Nutcracker, witty, charming and a little naughty
on 4 June 2007
There's more hip and tongue action in Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker than Tchaikovsky or Balanchine probably envisaged, but nevertheless the ballet is funny, touching, original and witty. More to the point, it remains charming and innocent while Bourne brings a whole new look and style to the old perennial.
This time there is no sumptuous family Christmas celebration or crowds of cute dancing tykes. We're in a dim, cold orphanage which Dr. Dross (Scott Ambler) and his wife, the matron (Emily Piercy), run with an unsmiling strictness. Their two children, Sugar (Saranne Curtin) and Fritz (Ewan Wardrop) are spoiled, snotty monsters. One of the orphans, Clara (Etta Murfitt), longs to escape. Magically, after a sad little Christmas party, a nutcracker doll (Alan Vincent) comes to life, rescues Clara and punishes Dr. Dross, the Matron and their children. Clara finds herself in an enchanted winterland. Then, with the help of two cupids in striped pajamas, she makes her way to Sweetieland, where everything, including the people, are made of candy. And here Dr. Dross is the smiling King Sherbet, the Matron is the beautiful Queen Candy and their two children have become Princess Sugar and Prince Bonbon. The Nutcracker, to Clara's wondering eyes, has become a handsome young man who looks much like the shy fellow who gazed longingly at Clara in the orphanage. After all the great Tchaikovsky dances, the party in Sweetieland comes to a close, and Clara finds herself back at the orphanage. It hasn't changed. It's as cold and barren as before. But then she sees waiting for her the young man. He ties a sheet to a bed, they toss the end out the window, and escape together.
Most people, I hope, will find themselves able to do two things: First, to greatly enjoy Bourne's take on this ballet; and second, also to treasure the more conventional and superb versions by Balanchine and Baryshnikov.
Bourne not only uses classic ballet, but Broadway, jive, sports and even burlesque. He's also not afraid to be a little scary. When the Nutcracker comes to life at the orphanage he has a frozen face that looks like a cross between Howdy Doody and Chucky. He lurches across the stage. In Sweetieland, however, everything that was unhappy and threatening has been turned to warmth and gaiety. The three helmet-wearing gobstoppers strut around like football stars in the end-zone, swiveling their hips and pumping the air. The licorice Allsorts do a tempestuous Spanish stomp that has Clara looking twice at where their hands land. Since everything is candy in Sweetieland, there's a lot of finger sucking and face licking, which might startle the grownups but would probably make the kids give a delighted "Eeuww." The whole thing is funny and a little naughty, but never so much that anyone other than the most prudish would be offended...certainly not kids.
This is Matthew Bourne in a playful mood. For a darker look, watch his "Swan Lake." Either way, he's an immensely gifted and original choreographer.