Ballet is a hard nut to crack: the dry ice must be thick enough to choke that poor dying swan and the men must wear grotesque codpieces conical enough to double up as an improvised Madonna costume. And yet, even twenty years after opening, Matthew Bourne's sumptuously designed Nutcracker! still manages to overthrow such orthodoxy without losing a grain of elegance, ingenuity or spirit.
Cracking open the conventions of ballet, Matthew Bourne's exquisitely detailed choreography remains an arresting and fresh interpretation of Tchaikovsky's 150 year old piece. Every little step is full of an impassioned and impressively modern narrative drive, sense of character and calculated wit. Clashing charleston with go-go and Latin with quickstep, each movement of Bourne's Nutcracker! is vivid and varied.
Anthony Ward's dreamlike design perfectly captures all of our childhood fears and dreams. From its opening sequences in an oppressively tilted Dickensian orphanage to the quick-step procession of samba-dancing liquorice all sorts, Ward's design is both nightmarish and wondrous. Literally exploding the set with noise and light, Ward's design captures the drama at the heart of the music with spectacle and excitement.
As a troop, the dancers of Bourne's Nutcracker are quite exquisite. Ashley Shaw's turn as Sugar, brattish daughter of the hated orphanage owners, dances the sugar plum fairy beautifully, finding the elegant poise of traditional ballet without losing sight of the modernity which propels Bourne's work. Tom Jackson Greaves, too, earns the heart and applause of his audience by finding the humour of his deliciously foppish Knickerbocker Glory without compromising technical accuracy.
The sole disappointment of the evening is the absence of an orchestra. Whilst the pre-recorded soundtrack doesn't miss a beat in terms of style or punch, it does somewhat lack when compared with productions which fill the auditorium with the monstrously powerful sound of live violins, woodwind and drums.
Nonetheless, this remains a magnificent journey into the nightmares of reality and the possibilities of fantasy which reinvents ballet as it celebrates it, Matthew Bourne's revolutionary yet recognisable Nutcracker! is an ideal introduction to contemporary dance for the ballet beginner.