Luana Georg as The Sugar Plum Fairy in Ben Stevenson's The Nutcracker Photo Harri Rospu

Luana Georg as The Sugar Plum Fairy in Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker
Photo Harri Rospu

Estonian National Ballet
Opera House, Tallinn, Estonia
November 25, 2015

Stuart Sweeney

I wonder how many performances of The Nutcracker will take place around the world this year? In the US, where many companies depend on the Christmas receipts to survive for the rest of the year, I remember reading about a group of dancers going out to dinner late in the run who asked the waiter if they could have some different music, as after some 50 performances and a variety of injuries they couldn’t bear to hear Tchaikovsky’s tunes yet again. Nevertheless, it is a fine score and provides a framework for beautiful dance and at its best a sense of wonder, even for grown-ups.

The Ben Stevenson setting has been in the Estonian National Ballet repertory for a few years. The strength of the production lies with the dancing from the snowflakes onwards,. He introduces a Snow Queen just for that section and in this role, Nanae Marayuma partnered by Sergei Upkin as the Nutcracker Prince, lifted my spirits with their exquisite duet set among the snowflake dancers. Marayuma has a lovely line and the warmth of her personality shines through her movement.

The second Act opens with some jolly scenes with a group of cooks played by students from the Tallinn Ballet School and leads on to an impressive set of national dances. The Spanish Dance features Seili Loorits-Kämbre who attacked the role with high kicks and great confidence. Marta Navasardyan was suitably seductive in the Arabian Dance and the amusing Chinese dance had added fun with a dropped sword and a hat accidentally knocked off – no names, no pack drill. The star turn was provided by Ali Urata in the Cossack dance, as with huge jumps and impressive aerial spins he set the stage alight. Luana Georg as the Sugar Plum Fairy, partnered by Upkin provided much pleasure in the grand pas. Georg’s phrasing showed fine musicality and precise steps with her arms carving supple shapes in the air. Upkin’s elegant jumps and careful partnering rounded off this climax to the ballet, before Clara is woken up by her Mother.

The company’s previous Nutcracker was choreographed by Mai Murdmaa, and was dropped before Thomas Edur took over as Director. I much preferred Charles Cusick Smith’s beautiful art nouveaux designs to the heavy, dull coloured sets by Thomas Boyd in the current, Stevenson, production. The earlier version also scored in the party scene with ample space on the small Opera House stage and far fewer bodies, allowing for more expansive dance. Further, a clever dramatic device of packing the adults off to dinner left Drosselmeyer and his elves to orchestrate a delightful children’s party.

The earlier production follows a typical East European plan, with a virtuoso role for Clara or Marie as she is usually called in this part of the world, dancing the final grand pas. Stevenson follows the usual Western format with the Sugar Plum Fairy ballerina taking centre stage only at the end. I favour the former structure where the big pas de deux forms part of Clara/Marie’s development to adulthood, rather than a gala-like addition. Stevenson also takes a determinedly unmagical approach to the narrative, with Drosselmeyer relegated to a party conjurer who doesn’t travel to the Land of Sweets.

Although I found the Estonian’s present Nutcracker enjoyable for Stevenson’s choreography from a third of the way through, with the second act solely a girl’s dream with no sense of rite of passage, for me it is a production short on wonder.