Wayne Eagling’s Nutcracker returns again to the Coliseum for its sixth year as a staple of English National Ballet’s repertoire. ENB certainly lack no dance talent, as is abundantly obvious in this festive masterclass led by Erina Takahashi as a firstly vulnerable, but later resplendent Clara.
The opening party scene is smooth and engaging, with the young performers from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and English National Ballet School working impressively with the main company. The serene ‘snowflakes’ in the Land of Snow have clearly been thoroughly rehearsed with military-like precision, their spacing and timing both flawless as they glisten throughout this magical scene. Eagling’s Nutcracker is undoubtedly a wonderful piece of yuletide escapism, however it’s sometimes let down by muddled storytelling and the production’s small budget is apparent in the rather basic set and plain costuming.
Young Clara is played impressively by Cheryl Heung of Tring Park – surely a talent we will see in the future. Her Clara is bright and attentive throughout her time in the spotlight, dancing her solo with the nutcracker doll with such confidence and charm she seems an experienced professional.
The party scene is followed by a rather disappointing battle scene featuring too many ugly mice. I couldn’t decide whether the costumes were repellent or comical. This moment also marks the start of confusion and a continuous switch-up between the Nutcracker and Nephew characters via the guise of a mask. With only the Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker for comparison, where these switches don’t occur, I was left baffled for much of the first act, unable to tell who I was watching. I wasn’t concerned for long, however, as I was soon entranced by the grace and precision of Takahashi. Her Clara is honest in her fear and vulnerability in the battle scene and successfully hits all of the picture-perfect positions one is looking for in the first pas de deux.
The ‘national’ variations are largely successful to: the Arabian is the least engaging and is flat in its choreography, but Fabian Reimar leads the section with impressive strength and panache. Crystal Costa truly shines in the Spanish dance, showing the necessary energy and musicality for the variation. Alison McWhinney (for whom I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot) is wonderfully ethereal in the Mirlitons dance, her long limbs hitting positions so beautifully, making her a hugely engaging performer. The Waltz of the Flowers is again largely a strong set piece for these dancers: the lead flowers of Senri Kou, Max Westwell, Shiori Kase and Francisco Bosch hold the piece together with style and serenity, in the case of the graceful ladies. Yet it all moves at a rather pleasing pace too, thanks to Misato Tomita’s able conducting.
The final pas de deux does not disappoint: the (at last) luscious costumes dazzle the audience with lightness and sparkle and the dancers do not disappoint either. Takahashi continues to be flawless and well-prepared for these moments. She is the epitome of that safe pair of hands, required when it comes to delivering the Sugar Plum Fairy’s renowned short pointe steps on bent leg with the delicacy necessary. Finally, after all the muddling of earlier, Yonah Acosta has a moment to shine as the Prince. Acosta is a character with more than a little stage presence and leaps to match, his charisma certainly bringing the performance to a dynamic conclusion.
As many have said before, Eagling’s production leaves more than a little to be desired in its design and storytelling. But English National Ballet’s talented dancers truly breathe life into what they have and successfully deliver a warm and enjoyable evening of festive escapism.
Nutcracker is playing at the London Coliseum until 10 January. For more information and tickets, see the English National Ballet website. Photography: ASH.