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Reconstructing The Nutcracker is never easy. More than one director would likely agree. But the Vienna Festival Ballet consistently ranks up there in its commitment to the performance. Every stage effect enhances and develops the underlying theme of a young girl’s rite of passage to bliss, something undertaken by Clara, (the elegant Jodie McKnight) who moves seamlessly from child to womanhood, meeting the prince of her dreams during the course of an enchanted evening. In Act One, Clara receives a beautiful gift of a nutcracker doll from an old family friend/uncle, Dr Drosselmeyer. Each dancer rouses their character through their entry, which serves as a stimulating opening to the piece. Clara’s grandmother added a comic touch to the introduction which, although more slapstick than a traditional ballet, pulled in the younger members of the audience – this was a performance advertised for all the family.
Our heroine later has a nightmare where she is attacked by the evil mouse king. The stage becomes swamped by sprightly and equally menacing rats led by the mouse king until eventually Clara is left alone with the Nutcracker who has now transformed into a handsome soldier. The subsequent battle scenes between the mouse king and the nutcracker are mesmerizing. The servant mice provide charming comedic turns in a typically harrowing scene, and it works amazingly. The most striking feature of this particular sequence is the technique and skill maintained by the dancers in spite of their extravagant costumes and bulky mouse masks.
The beauty of the scenery, Christmas-decoration-filled ballrooms, snow-capped mountains and bare, fickle tree branches is breath-taking. The lighting that brings out the silvery shadows and outfits generously encrusted with Swarovski crystals is equally appreciated. All the performances are impressive in the second act, but the Arabian coffee sequence is very memorable due to the synchronicity of the three dancers involved. The fluidity of movement between the dancers is incredible, as each of their single movements visually becomes one.
A climatic group dance leading to the final stage position is a stunning closing image. However, the swift transition from the decadent Kingdom of the sweets back to Clara’s family home slightly detracts from this scene, and it’s here the ballet ends. This ending feels slightly rushed, leaving the audience anticipating something more. The skill and agility of the small company is highly remarkable, especially the sustained energy throughout. However, the lack of a live orchestra sadly does not do justice to the talent of the dancers, as Tchaikovsky’s emotive Nutcracker suite is stilted and flat when played through the speakers’ of the Grand.
While all the performers are strong, the height of the evening for me was the set of variations at the end of Act II. Besides being highly skilled dancers, Jodie McKnight provided an intimacy and connection with each of her dance partners that really worked on stage. She also seemed to be pushing her abilities to the max, with high lifts and extensions that were real crowd pleasers. She had a technical control that was a joy to watch.
The bottom line for any production of this ballet is simple — does it work for the audience? This one sure does. Every couple of years I find myself at a performance of The Nutcracker — I was glad to be at this one.