Estonia Opera House
Tallinn

3rd and 5th December 2023

Stuart Sweeney

The Nutcracker is a key element in the repertoire of most ballet companies. With a memorable score and ideally suited to Christmas, it is a favourite for both children and adults. So, a new production is a critical event and the good news for Estonian National Ballet is that the premier of Gyula Harangozó’s version received a standing ovation and ten minutes applause.

A feature of the new production is the largest number of children on-stage I have ever seen in a ballet. Linnar Looris, the Artistic Director, is keen to get more young Estonians, especially boys, dancing, so this Nutcracker aligns with his strategy. A good proportion of the audience were under fifteen and the show may well have sparked a wish to get involved. For the dance school students taking part, it represented an opportunity to learn stagecraft, perform alongside fine professional dancers and appreciate applause.

Ali Urata
Photo: Rünno Lahesoo

The first act sees a contemporary, wealthy family apartment with children and adults enjoying a party. The driving force of this early section is Ali Urata as Drosselmeyer. With warmth and grace, he directs the proceedings with a liberal dose of perfectly executed tours en l’air and grands jetés. Throughout the ballet, he brings his character’s outgoing personality to vivid life.

The entertainers also provide a high spot. Antonio Gallo as Spiderman brings exceptionally fluid motion to his tumbling and spinning. Laura Maya’s Barbie combines the awkwardness of a doll with elegant pirouettes and fouettés. Leonardo Celegato is a forceful robot and concludes with an extended pirouette à la seconde with his leg at right angles, finishing exactly on the beat. Throughout the Act, Leene Vugts, from Tallinn School of Music and Ballet, as Little Clara dances and acts to professional standards, and enjoys a delightful duet with Drosselmeyer. These high spots are important, as some of the ensemble choreography in the party scene is unexciting.

After Clara is put to bed, her dream takes over, with the traditional, furious battle between the mice and the infantry. Clara awakes fully grown, portrayed by Ami Morita, and the diminutive Nutcracker Prince comes to life with Joel Calstar-Fisher. They celebrate their new adult forms with a joyful, affectionate pas de deux. The First Act closes with the Waltz of the Snowflakes and Harangozó creates a series of intriguing patterns for the perfectly synchronised ensemble with Akane Ichii and Nanae Maruyama adding sparkle as the two leads.

Marta Navarsardyan, Ali Urata and Nanae Maruyama in The Arabian Dance
Photo: Rünno Lahesoo

In the second Act, we journey to a palace and the national dances. The Arabian dance is a trio for Nanae Maruyama, Marta Navarsardyan and Ali Urata. The gentle, atmospheric music provides a platform for a series of combinations, sensuously performed by the three dancers. The Russian dance with its vibrant score gives Akane Ichii and Leonardo Celegato the opportunity of dynamic footwork and windmilling arms. Celegato executes the rapid jumps and Cossack steps with great aplomb. However, the choreography of the Spanish dance lacked the vitality I would have expected, and the staccato movement of the Chinese dance failed to amuse me.

Akane Ichii and Leonardo Celegato in The Russian Dance
Photo: Rünno Lahesoo

The culmination of The Nutcracker is the grand pas with the famous Sugar Plum Fairy variation. A fundamental difference arises between Western and Eastern versions: in the West, a new couple appear briefly at the start of the Second Act and then perform the grands pas, while in Russian and Eastern European versions, it is Clara and the Nutcracker Prince who take the stage. I prefer the latter format as the two characters are already familiar and continuity is preserved.

Ami Morita
Photo: Rünno Lahesoo

In the opening duet, Ami Morita executes the demanding choreography with great style, featuring a series of beautiful arabesques. Joel Calstar-Fisher partners expertly, smoothly executing complex overhead lifts and dramatic catches as Ami Morita leaps at him. In the Sugar Plum Fairy variation, Ami Morita’s superb technique, supple back, musicality, and elegant ports de bras ensure a delightful solo. At the start of the final duet, I enjoyed Joel Calstar-Fisher’s grand jetés in a circle around the stage and Ami Morita’s diagonal series of spinning grand jetés en attitude. Overall, the couple impeccably executed the original choreography by Petipa.

Overall, Gyula Harangozó has created much fine choreography in his Nutcracker, with the few caveats I have mentioned. Rita Velich’s costumes perfectly match the wide variety of characters and scenes. My primary misgiving in the production are the set designs by Kentaur, as too often they are a distraction from the dance. For instance, in the Waltz of the Flowers in the second act, the fussy surrounds and hangings from the ceiling produce a cluttered effect detracting from the ensemble. At the end of the ballet, the overly ornamental features are withdrawn for a few minutes and the setting for the final dances is much improved.

As I wrote at the beginning, the ballet received a rapturous reception and I’m sure it will delight audiences for many years to come.

Antonio Gallo, Abigail Mattox and Beatriz Domingues
Photo: Rünno Lahesoo

Estonian National Ballet had another premiere a few days later, Timbu-Limbu’s Court and the Snow-Millers, a 45-minute children’s ballet choregraphed by Linnar Looris. Based on an Estonian story, the narrative involves a witch who freezes the millers who make it snow, and the group who try to stop her and eventually succeed. Looris employs Estonian folk dance and ballet steps to create clearly differentiated movement for each character. Reili Evart’s designs are colourful and imaginative.

Beatriz Domingues as Timbu-Limbu brought great joie de vivre to her role and Antonio Gallo played her dog Muki with rapid and precise steps, extracting much humour from the part. Linnar Looris was also the narrator and clearly enjoyed being on stage again. I spoke with a couple of young children afterwards who both told me they enjoyed the experience. A charming introduction to dance, Timbu-Limbu’s Court and the Snow-Millers is a valuable addition to the company’s repertoire.