Thursday, February 29

The Nutcracker – Leeds Grand Theatre

Northern Ballet’s festive spectacular is their annual thank you to the city which they call home and has supported them to become a world class company.

It’s also had the feel of an onstage office Xmas do where the dancers, creatives, musicians and technical teams really let rip in a production that is always epic in scale, and often gloriously over the top. 

The Nutcracker with its surreal, dreamy narrative, and Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, is the perfect vehicle as naïve young rich girl Clara is given an introduction into another world by a mysterious magician Drosselmeyer, who gives her a toy nutcracker that in classic fairy tale fashion turns into a handsome prince.

Charles Cusick Smith’s massive sets from an opulent country house to a wonderfully realised winter fantasyland are a backdrop for life sized mice, an army of toy soldiers brought to life, Cossacks, snowflakes and vibrant flowers, but are Clara’s experiences in this sparkly festive world just a dream?  

All of this is beautifully realised and would be nice if a bit pointless if the dancing wasn’t up to Northern’s usual high standards, and it is as the company deploys many of their most experienced dancers and rising stars. The whole company look like they’re having as much fun as the audience as they make the most of some typically dynamic and witty choreography by their former artist director David Nixon, where every en pointe, Arabesque, grand jete, pas de deux, solo and lift is solely in the service of the narrative. 

Photo: Emily Nuttall

The tone is set with a sumptuous and beautifully realised group dance at a party scene in Clara’s country mansion, and special mention to the junior performers from Northern’s Centre for Advanced Training Programme who more than held their own in exalted company.

Gavin McCaig’s sinister but playful magician cavorts flamboyantly around the stage sweeping in to whisk Clara off to a new world where Bruno Serraclara’s witty Mouse King even manages a bit of flossing before going into battle with a troop of toy soldiers brought to life.  

First soloist Rachael Gillespie solos strongly as the perky Clara as does Harris Beattie as the Prince, and he can only have enhanced his reputation as a rising star with a charming performance. Their duets in the second act are full of power and grace making for a believable couple falling in love.   

First soloists Saeka Shirai and Jonathan Hanks duet superbly with some sensational lifts, and offer genuine chemistry as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. Both solo strongly, but Shirai’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s iconic score is sublime.

Like all productions on this stage, whatever the medium, a strong ensemble is vital, and the striking twinkly snowflakes were beautifully synchronised en pointe as snow rained down on them much to the delight of many younger ballet fans….and probably quite a few older ones too.

The other star of the show is Tchaikovsky’s score orchestrated by John Longstaff that is such a part of our cultural consciousness, and Jonathan Lo conducted the Northern Sinfonia impeccably, including a rousing Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Ballet is often unfairly seen as a high- brow form solely for the middle class, but only because too many people let their cultural insecurities deny themselves the chance to experience how movement can explore human emotions in a unique way. Northern’s new artistic director Federico Bonnelli has wisely kept the company’s festive tradition in the programme, so if you can overcome any prejudices about ballet then this joyful version of The Nutcracker offers a perfect introduction into the magic of dance.

The Nutcracker is at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 7th January. To book or 0113 2430808.

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 20 December 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★