THE fresh flowers and sprites that are the ever-young company of Vienna Festival Ballet dancers are back with their 2011 autumn treat. Worthing staged the second night of their Nutcracker tour and the new central partnership of their principal Melanie Cox with their up-stepping Glaswegian, Richard Hackett, as Clara’s Prince on his star-role debut with the company.
The coming months will tell if they will be a permanent pairing. Cox’s musicality, her ever strengthening line and her developing theatricality, combines with Hackett’s naturally easy-going style and his lightness of foot as their starting points. Focus on them will fall secondarily, perhaps, within the wider window of this overall production by artistic director Peter Mallek with Sheila Styles.
The test of any of the three great Tchaikowsky ballets in company presentation is the answering of the question: what individual ideas, touches or visions give it vitality and make it different from the last production you saw? Styles’ injections here are substantial, entertaining and should prove notable among Nutcracker fans.
Clara and brother Fritz (Spaniard, Joel Colmenero), more often shown as younger and warring, were portrayed as older children. They demonstrated more affection for each other than normal, and even had two harmonious duets together. Cox made a Clara more provocatively mischievous than her brother.
The Christmas Eve party contained more family dancing and came across more homely than some of the stiffer 19th Century Russian society portraits this all-too-short Prologue often provokes. Anita Bradshaw shone as the Ballerina Doll along with Hackett in his wooden nutcracker incarnation. There was also amusement in an elderly relative with a surreptitious hipflask.
Just as Joseph Mackie-Graves’ Dr Drosselmeyer is here benign and benevolent, the Act 1 midnight battle, instead of a sinister Hoffmanesque clash between soldiers and animal mice, was a bloodless exchange between toys that nevertheless culminated in Clara believing she had failed to save the Nutcracker’s life. A splendid pas de deux to Tchaikowsky’s immense C major blaze at this point of the score proved her gloriously wrong.
The VFB’s music recording lacked some sparkle and colour in the Prologue but was unusually black and forbidding as Act 1 took shape. After night turned to the white day of the Kingdom of Sweets, Keegan May and Danielle Stephens shared an enhancing pas de deux as Snow Queen and Prince within the Waltz of the Snowflakes.
The Act 2 Divertissement of national dances kicked off with two Spanish Dances for the price of one in a full repeat of the music I’ve never encountered before. It was rather cosmopolitan Spanish, however, and Colmenero’s solo Trepak needed some raucous Russian squats, and flower fairy Alexia Anderson Koutzis left her smile backstage in the second big Waltz.
More than compensatory, though, were the Harlequins – a VFB speciality less often included by other companies – with May and Mackie-Graves clowning lovably. And Styles’ Arabian Dance became the evening’s enduring highlight and a source of the finale’s coup de grace.
Apricot-colour attired Georgina Rose Connolly’s four golden slaves used a red silk sheet to intriguing visual and sensual effect. A desert tent was one image subtly projected and Connolly showed some of her Royal Ballet and Vaganova School pedigree in this most erotic of Tchaikowsky’s novelty set-pieces.
The concluding transfiguration of Clara’s delivery home from the fantasy, with her nutcracker doll, was skilfully stage-managed by Styles by using her Arabian quintet to transport and finally reveal Clara. Powerful newcomer from the Central School, James Pullam, as the slave bearers parted the scene, suddenly backflipped away into the wings. It was totally unexpected, revelatory, and a sensational effect.
This Nutcracker production counts among the VFB’s best.