I first saw a monochrome picture of Ekaterina Maximova as Masha clutching her oversized, grinning Nutcracker doll as a young child, probably three or four years or so after the 1966 premiere. Little could I image as I gazed in wonder at this perfect dancer that I would be watching the production in full colour, as vivid an image as being there, more than four decades later.
From the frisson of excitement as the familiar opening chords herald the vision of those fabulous Bolshoi tabs and the great chandelier to the breathtaking, extended curtain calls, the hallowed boards carpeted in flowers, the magic of this production never stops.
We are perhaps more used to the cooler, Germanic origins hailed in our annual productions or the chic of a Kensington house party or the English Christmas card being recalled. But this is a truly Russian production, straight from the pages of Gogol, danced by Karandash and illustrated by Caran d’Ache!
The overture sparkles, pacier than we normally hear it, crisp with Russian frost and crackling with detail. A parade of extraordinary creatures, each telling their own miniature sagas as they cross the apron, gives way to Drosselmeyer, the master of ceremonies, partly sinister, partly avuncular.
A provincial house party is underway with the children being entertained by Harlequin and Columbine and two clown dolls and Drosselmeyer’s magic cane. Fearsome Fritz breaks the giant Nutcracker doll but Masha curls up in the huge chair, comforting her new toy as Fritz leads the beastly boys in a raucous riot. At last, all is quiet as everyone but Masha sleeps and she steals downstairs to check on her nutcracker doll.
Simon Virsaladze’s set strikes the surreal, slightly sinister note of dreams as the proportions of the room distort, the tree suddenly becomes vast and intimidating and rats appear from all sides. King Rat is a wonderful, red-eyed monster and it is rather sad when he is overpowered by the tin soldiers. The battle seems to be won, but at the expense of the poor nutcracker doll. But no. The transformation of the pudgy puppet toy with its oddly familiar, grotesque face into everyone’s idea of the perfect prince is truly moving.
The conducting of the great Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra is a revelation, the scintillating opening but a preparation for the grandeur of the later scenes. This is Tchaikovsky played as surely he would have intended, with deep understanding and skill.
Masha and her prince are transported in a scary flying boat to the land where the nursery comes to life and where every day is a snowy Christmas. The rats have followed but are soon dispatched down the mysterious, smoky pit.
The second act dances are masterpieces of bravura dancing. The Arabian is moved to India, a wonderfully controlled adage. The Mirlitons are transferred into delightful shepherd and shepherdess dolls, complete with beribboned lamb. The Chinese dancers look exactly like mantelpiece figurines, all barrel turns and frog jumps. The red and gold of the Spanish dance, all flash and fire.
Masha too is transported, no longer a little girl with a doll at a party, but living her own vision of forthcoming adulthood. The grand adagio opens with reference to the solemnities of the Russian wedding ceremony. Masha dances the Sugar Plum Fairy variation as part of the grand pas de demux, which is technical and emotional perfection. Maximova has extraordinary feet, scything crescents of power supporting floating ports de bras. The great Vasiliev exudes grace and control, landing from huge jumps as gracefully and softly as any cat and ever attentive to his Masha.
Like the audience, I too did not want this to end, but luckily, as it is a DVD, there is always the opportunity to watch it again and again.
The Russian Ballet Collection (five classic ballets) are available via www.russianballetcollection.com or by calling (UK) 0344 543 9801.