Ismene Brown

The best (and worst) of ballet and dance over Christmas

The best (and worst) of ballet and dance over Christmas
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The Nutcracker, English National Ballet, until 4 Jan ***

The Little Match Girl, Lilian Baylis Studio, until 4 Jan *****

Edward Scissorhands, Sadler’s Wells, until 11 Jan ***

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Royal Ballet, until 16 Jan **

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Linbury Studio Theatre, until 17 Jan **

Amazing, the change in the dance weather this Christmas. Where usually there is snow, fairies, tinkly celestas, a glut of Nutcrackers, traditions have turned topsy-turvy. At the Royal Ballet the sun has broken out (if mildly) in its Don Quixote, as I reported last week, and only the dependable English National Ballet is serving up a trad Nutcracker over Christmas, at the Coliseum. Yet I can’t remember a Christmas when there was so much real traditional inspiration to be found in the dance shows, from music-hall to children’s classic tales. After years of meh experiences, I have less patience these days. I want shows of high emotion just now, the flat-out theatrical skills to whip up magic and dreams, the daring to provoke our fears of grief and then catch us safely back into happiness.

This is what the greatest British Nutcracker does, the one Birmingham Royal Ballet were gifted by their former director Sir Peter Wright, which frustratingly you can never see at Christmas-time, because the Birmingham Hippodrome only ever give them a pre-Xmas slot. Mark your November diary for next year. Its colossally imagined transformations by the genius designer John Macfarlane remain, after 25 years, uneclipsed.

It’s a template for Nutcrackers in its narrative coherence and choreographic majesty that ENB’s Nutcracker (see picture below) at the Coliseum right now can’t come near. But when Alina Cojocaru and Alejandro Virelles (ENB’s high-quality new Cuban hiring) took hands for the opening of the pas de deux on the first night I thought I was in heaven, such beauty and magic was there in their dancing. And the storm of applause that broke over them showed the entire audience thought so too. Tchaikovsky’s epic music and what you’d have to call odours-of-Ivanov’s choreography have that effect on one’s soul.

[caption id="attachment_8950852" align="aligncenter" width="520"]during English National Ballet's dress rehearsal of the Nutcracker English National Ballet's Nutcracker at the Coliseum Theatre. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson[/caption]

You could go two ways otherwise - spend a lot on the tickets and expect a lot of bang for your bucks, or unwrap a tiny miniature and be blown away. For me there’s no contest - Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl at Sadler’s Wells small studio theatre, the Lilian Baylis, is the most exquisite dance-theatre experience of the season (in fact, it’s one of my best-of-2014).

Pita takes Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the poor little match girl who freezes to death and creates a perfectly spellbinding 70 minutes that sends everyone home with withers wrung and sides split. The children who audibly sobbed, as I’m afraid I did, when she died at her grandma’s grave giggled delightedly as her fairy grandma spirited her up a ladder into the moon. There her encounter with an astronaut is both hilarious (weightlessness has jolly funny effects on pas de deux) and somehow immensely wise and gentle. With wonderful insight, Pita captures a child’s innate capacity for joy, especially inspired in her duet with the lamplighter where she proudly uses her match to light the flare that lights the streetlamp. Such a delicate fusion of the mystery of hope and the reality of pain.

The props, from gigantic moon to miniature houses, are an utter delight; the outstandingly suggestive music is made by one spooky-looking character, the deliciously named Frank Moon, from a tinkle of bells, a lute, a violin, a cleverly amplified microphone and, woo-hoo!, a theremin. There are just five performers, crowned by the mesmerisingly childlike Corey Annand. Did I mention it’s spoken in Italian? A stroke of genius! The British actor-dancers are so vivid that the biting, lilting language simply adds an incantatory extra mystique to the spell.

[caption id="attachment_8950882" align="aligncenter" width="520"]EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, Liam Mower as Edward Scissorhands. Photo: Johan Persson[/caption]

Pita’s boyfriend Matthew Bourne occupies the main Sadler’s stage with Edward Scissorhands (see picture above), another tale of an outsider - this one drawn from Tim Burton’s film - but which plays too broadly for laughs to wring any similar poignancy. If you haven’t seen the heartbreaking fairytale movie with Johnny Depp, you may well enjoy the very skilled panto fun of Bourne’s staging, a cheerful parody of the film right down to Terry Davies’s confection of Danny Elfman’s music.

Like Scissorhands, the Royal Opera House’s double helping of Lewis Carroll majors on luxury scenery, without dramatic suspense, and definitely no tears. Christopher Wheeldon’s Alices Adventures in Wonderland on the main stage makes for diverting film-dance (there’s a DVD, and it has a live cinema relay on 28 December) but it’s much less rewarding live, where despite Sarah Lamb’s enchanting personality it’s obvious that Alice experiences no emotions at all except the interested inquiry of a tourist on a package holiday seeing the glitzy sights and illusions of Wonderland. It’s visibly expensive and highly skilled, but the ingenuity has a hole where the dancing heart should be. It’s something you might giggle through at 2am with intoxicating substances at hand, rather than soberly, holding a well-behaved child’s hand.

In the Linbury Studio Theatre downstairs, Kate Prince’s Zoonation company produce a supposedly more streetwise, hip version in The Mad Hatters Tea Party. This offers the promising idea that the characters are all in a loony bin (cf the Cheshire Cat: 'We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.'). The listing of the wizard breakdancer Tommy Franzen’s name beside the psychiatrist who aims to cure them arouses excited expectations that are only quarter-satisfied - he has to spend much time being dazed and confused, and the huge tea table constricts the dancing space. The costumes are attentively loud and the cousins of those upstairs in the Wheeldon. You can see a brief dance-off between the rival Mad Hatters in this ROH trailer - one tapping, the other b-boying - above. Sprogs will love the costumes, but adults will feel short-changed.

The costumes are equally astonishing at The Little Match Girl. There really are some skilful costume-makers around at the moment.