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Light and Lightness
at the London Coliseum

By Patricia Boccadoro

LONDON, 8 February 2000 - After a series of dismal evenings in Paris culminating in Maurice Béjart's tedious version of The Nutcracker, I decided to go to London in hope of more traditional fare . With Wright's production at Covent Garden, Deane's at the Coliseum, Bintley's in Birmingham, and the Saint Petersburg Ballet Theatre in the provinces , there was plenty of choice, but I opted for Derek Deane's 1997 version with the English National Ballet, mainly because of the guest appearance of the Paris Opéra's star couple, Agnès Letestu and José Martinez as the Sugar Plum fairy and the Nutcracker prince.

I was interested to see what such artistically gifted dancers could do with potentially two of the most colourless and clichéd characters in classical ballet. Not only was my curiosity rewarded.......they brought light and lightness to the ballet, but I was also swept along by one of the freshest versions I have seen for some time.

While retaining the traditional plot based on E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which is not quite the innocent fairy tale it first might seem, Deane has put his production into a contemporary setting to which it lends itself readily. The curtain rises on a Christmas party, with guests tangoing round the room dressed in slinky little black numbers. One elegant young woman is chatting on her portable telephone when Drosselmeyer, Clara's godfather, arrives on a very smart delivery tricycle.

As the adults go in to dinner, he conjures up three life size mechanical dolls resembling Robocop, Michael Jackson and Barbie to entertain the children, but then, when Clara starts to dance with her new Nutcracker doll, she somehow ends up being swirled around in his arms. Misplaced ardour ? Without a doubt.

Following the lines of the story, Clara falls asleep under the Christmas tree, and the sinister rats arrive accompanied by the most cuddly mice that ever set paw on stage, for the ensuing battle with the toy soldiers. The victory of the nutcracker soldier who turns into the handsome prince is a foregone conclusion.

The living room is transformed into the glittering Land of Snow, and all suggestive undertones have vanished with the telephone as the heroine dances with the Ice Queen and her attendants. But the best of the ballet has yet to come. Soaring through the skies on the magical tricycle (style E. T. and his friends), Clara and her prince arrive in the Kingdom of Sweets.

This is inhabited by dancing liquorice allsorts in square tutus and giant bags of sweets capering around the stage , and there is even a Chinese dragon which joins in the fun as dancers arrive from the four corners of the world for a joyful celebration culminating with the appearance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

In all fairness, the ballet resembled more a succession of tableaux than a coherent full-length work. But all praise must be given to Derek Deane for what he has accomplished on obviously limited financial means, for while neither decor and costumes can remotely compare with the lavish stagings in France, nor with those across the road at Covent Garden, they were nevertheless most effective.

The cast was led by Spanish trained Tamara Rojo, ex-pupil of Victor Ullate as Clara. With her lovely rounded arms and dreamy sweetness, she was enchanting. Agnes Oaks, from the Estonian Opera Ballet, was a suitably brittle Snow Queen, and Cuban dancer Yosvani Ramos as the jubilant high jumping Russian dancer was obviously and deservedly a favourite with the audience.

However the undisputed stars of the evening were the young dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet whose grace, beauty and style were a sharp contrast to Dean's lack lustre company.

José Martinez was every young girl's ideal of love, (and many a grandmother's in the audience too), while Agnès Letestu excelled in the role where the tantalising leitmotiv in the music was, according to Roland John Wiley , addressed to Tchaikovsky's sister, Alexandra, (who had died while the composer was working on the score.) Sadly, the same cannot be said of the corps de ballet. With their pinched small faces and bony knees sticking out from under their party frocks they looked more in need of a good meal than anything else. Skinny arms are not pretty, and no matter how well they coped with the choreography, there was little joy in their dancing . Was it pure coincidence that none of the soloists were British dancers ? It's time the page was turned on the half-starved, emaciated waifs who haunt so many of the ballet companies of today .

José Martinez and Agnès Letestu will be dancing Esmeralda and In The Middle, choreography Forsythe, at the Lincoln Center, New York, on February 14. They will also make a guest appearance in Dallas on March 11th dancing Sylvia choreography Balanchine followed by In The Middle .


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

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