What to Expect from Northern Ballet's Production of The Nutcracker
One of the most popular ballets, The Nutcracker, is celebrating its 130th year on stage. We caught up with members of Northern Ballet to find out why this decades-old ballet is as popular as ever, and what to expect from their take on this classic
Northern Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker has been choreographed and directed by David Nixon CBE. ‘The Nutcracker is a story which people know and love to share with friends and family. It offers the perfect festive escapism for every generation, a chance to revel in the child-like magic of Christmas. It adds to the pleasure of the holiday time and provides a few hours of timeless beauty,’ explains David. ‘This winter we will be returning to stages across the UK with our take on this festive favourite, taking audiences on a sparkling adventure as one child’s Christmas dreams come true.’
In the midst of a festive party, a young girl, Clara, is caught up in the warmth and excitement of Christmas and becomes enthralled by her new Nutcracker doll. But, as the clock strikes midnight, her Nutcracker proves to be no ordinary toy. After saving her Nutcracker from the wily Mouse King, Clara is whisked away on the magical journey of a lifetime through a winter wonderland of dancing snowflakes and the famous Sugar Plum Fairy.
Northern Ballet’s The Nutcracker premiered in 2007 and has been a festive favourite ever since, with its unique take on the classic. ‘When considering my Nutcracker production for Northern Ballet I wanted to combine the best elements of my previous versions with an interpretation that was in line with both the narrative identity of the company and being in the UK,’ explains David. ‘I loved the idea of Regency England and the Jane Austin associations and was really inspired by Charles Cusick Smith’s wonderful set designs.
‘All these years later I am still pleased with this version as it remains unique, fast paced and relevant. The wardrobe has managed to keep the production fresh, and with the addition of new costume designs it continues to look beautiful.’
Set to the renowned Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky score, played live by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, the production also features stunning Regency-style sets by Charles Cusick Smith with lighting by Mark Jonathan. This year, David will be working with Federico Bonelli, former Principal of The Royal Ballet and Northern Ballet’s new artistic director (David’s former role until retiring earlier this year) to revive the production.
Taking a bold and innovative approach to the original, the Northern Ballet company are renowned for their full-length work with a unique blend of strong, classical technique and impressive storytelling. Their repertoire embraces popular culture while taking inspiration from the classics, and their take on The Nutcracker is a perfect example of this.
‘Each version of The Nutcracker has its own nuances whilst retaining the essential elements of the iconic story,’ says David. ‘Ours is set in Regency-era England which lends itself beautifully to a multi-generation family at Christmas. The social dances of the time keep the party scene moving and with much more dance than in many other productions. The setting also provides a beautiful contrast, from the paler colours of the real world to the vibrant colours of the dream world.’
Rachael Gillespie will be starring in this year’s performances. Northern Ballet’s first soloist, she plays Clara in this Christmas classic. ‘Our version of the ballet is different because we are a touring theatre-ballet company,’ she explains. ‘So not only do you get world class dancers but you also get great actors too. Everyone on stage is fully involved and committed to the story. It’s fantastic for the audience to watch something so alive!’
‘The Nutcracker was actually the first ballet I ever saw,’ Rachael tells us. ‘It was on TV over the Christmas holidays when I was about seven and I remember loving it so much that I watched it over and over again. Little did I know back then that it’s not as effortless as it looks!
‘This will be the third time I have played Clara and it’s a role I feel very grateful to perform and revisit. I have become quite attached to my character over the years. She’s a special role that has been a real pleasure to dance. The character of Clara is a real joy, and you can bring something fresh to the role every time – whether it’s the energy, the story or evolving within your artistry. I feel that there is always room for improvement.’
Rachael reveals her favourite scene from the ballet – the Snow Scene. ‘It’s really beautiful – the costumes, the music, but most of all, the beautiful snowflake ladies. The dance itself, although it may look effortless, actually entails months of hard work before it goes on stage.
‘There are so many beautiful patterns and it requires great teamwork and dedication amongst everyone to get it right. It’s a real team effort that requires a lot of stamina too, but the end result is so rewarding, and for the audience it’s simply breathtaking.’
But what it is about this ballet that helps it stand the test of time? ‘I think that The Nutcracker is so popular because it is more than a ballet,’ says David. ‘It is a tradition for many families and generations. A way of having shared memories at a time of year when togetherness is at the fore.’
Rachael agrees. ‘The Nutcracker is definitely a show that has something for everyone and is perfect for celebrating Christmas,’ she says. ‘For many it even becomes a tradition. Whether you’re a ballet fanatic or it’s your first theatre experience, it’s definitely one of the best shows to see.
‘The live music is beautiful, the costumes and sets are a real treat for the eyes, and the infectious energy from the dancers keeps the audience enthralled from beginning to end.’
With Northern Ballet being based in Leeds, David says it is always extra special for the company to perform in Yorkshire. ‘Leeds is such a wonderful place to live and to be part of a warm and welcoming community is great. There’s always something special about performing in your home town, especially over the Christmas season. Leeds Grand Theatre is a second home to us, it’s such a beautiful venue steeped in history and we’re so grateful for the loyal audience we have there.
‘We have an amazing team and we’re always doing lots in and around the city alongside our tours,’ he adds. ‘The Northern Ballet Academy offers anything from community classes benefitting those who just want to enjoy dancing at any age, to training the next generation of dancers as part of a Centre for Advanced Training. This means that dancers from any economic background can train at the highest level while staying at home.
‘Our Learning department is also very busy within the community, offering alternative ways in which to engage with dance. Northern Ballet is much more than a touring company, and with our fantastic building in Leeds we are able to do so much more locally,’ says David.
To mark the 130th anniversary of the original Nutcracker ballet, Northern Ballet are celebrating the way they know best. ‘By bringing it back to the stage of course!’ says David. ‘The Nutcracker is such an important tradition and has that wonderful Christmas sparkle we all need at this time of year.
‘I also think it’s the perfect ballet for newcomers. So many of our dancers – like Rachael – were inspired to take their first ballet class after seeing The Nutcracker as children. It’s always such a pleasure to see the smiling faces in the audience and know you might be inspiring the next generation of dancers.’
When asked what audiences can expect from this year’s performance, Rachael’s answer is short but sweet: ‘To just have a wonderful time!’
What more convincing do you need than that?
Northern Ballet will be performing The Nutcracker from 30th November–3rd December at Hull New Theatre and 20th December–7th January at Leeds Grand Theatre. For more information or to book tickets visit northernballet.com
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