It is Christmas Eve and due to a combination of minor seasonal crises, I am writing this review on my phone while waiting in London (ha! I saw flocks of sheep on my way here) Luton airport. Combined with the likelihood of predictive text making itself known in unpredictable ways, this review stands a good chance of being ducking shiv. It’s all enough to put a dampener on your holiday spirit really but seeing the New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, would be more than enough to bring back the festive cheer.
For those who don’t know the story, The Nutcracker follows a young girl, Marie (also known as Clara), whose family are hosting a big Christmas party, the highlight of which is when Herr Drosselmeyer arrives with his amazing clockwork dolls. Marie is given a nutcracker in the shape of a soldier, which her obnoxious little brother Max (or Fritz in the Clara version) breaks. Drosselmeyer bandages it up and puts it in a doll’s bed under the Christmas tree before the guests depart and the children sent to bed. Later, Marie gets up in the night to retrieve her nutcracker and falls asleep with it on the sofa. Then at midnight she wakes up (or possibly has a really mad dream), to find that either she has become tiny or everything else in the room has grown huge; her nutcracker has come to life and is leading Max’s toy soldiers in a battle against mice.
When the nutcracker himself starts a sword fight with the seven-headed mouse king, he looks to be losing when Clara throws her shoe at the monstrosity. The distraction turns the fight in the nutcracker’s favour and he slays the mouse. Victorious, he reveals himself as a prince and whisks Marie off through a snowy forest to the Land of Sweets where the inhabitants, including Candy Cane and Mother Ginger and a bit weirdly, Tea, welcome them and put on a show.
The Nutcracker is the ultimate Christmas ballet and particularly family-friendly as a large proportion of the cast are (terrifyingly talented) children – the dancers playing Marie and the Prince are both 10. It’s a completely innocent fairy tale, no one’s bringing sexy back here (with the possible exception of a rather sultry Coffee). It’s similar to a pantomime in many ways, with men playing women, girls playing boys, and expressions are exaggerated to be seen in the back, which can be a bit weird when you’re treated to close-ups.
This New York City Ballet production of the George Balanchine version is especially beautiful, the set production values are sumptuous and it’s exquisitely staged. The music will also be familiar to most, even without knowing it. I can’t be the only one who thought the mushrooms were one of the best bits of Fantasia.
There are of course drawbacks to watching ballet on film – there has to be a reason why you’d pay the extra money to see it live after all – and during very busy scenes, such as the Christmas party, the camera often directs your focus to different areas to where you want to look. Overall though, my fears were far greater than the actuality and it’s significantly less hassle than flying to New York for the live show.
There are also bonuses to seeing the pre-recorded version. During the interval you would usually be queuing for the toilet or buying expensive mini tubs of ice cream, but this film takes you behind the scenes to see the set and chat to some of the dancers. This genuinely interesting side (at least for DVD extras geeks like us) did have two downsides though. A minor one is that it can take you out of the magic a little, after you’ve just been carried away by an especially dreamy snowflake dance. The major gripe is relentlessly upbeat presenter Kelly Ripa. Not bring well-versed in American soap operas, I initially thought she was someone associated with the ballet company and not used to presenting as she came off a bit hesitant and awkward when she introduced the film. However, it turns out that as well as an actress, Ripa has her own talk show, Live! With Kelly. It wasn’t just the optimism, which I could have excused given how enthusiastic I’ve been feeling about the ballet but how very put-on it was. No one could be so naive as to claim she had always thought that the stage-snow was real.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is absolutely made for Christmas and is screening again nationwide on 27th December and I think you should see it.