Last night K. took me to the ballet, ‘The Nutcracker’ at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. She won the tickets, clever girl, in an art competition. It was for the dress rehearsal, and it opens for real tonight. My advice to you: go. I’m no ballet aficionado, but that was the best night out I have had in the longest time. Granted, all of the circumstances were stacked in my favour: wonderful company, an almost empty theatre, and seats at the very front, overlooking the orchestra pit, and close enough to the dancers to see beads of sweat break on their foreheads. All in all, it was amazing.
The curtain rose on a stunning, sumptuous set – Christmas’s calling card. Every colour, movement, and facial expression added to the scene. Nothing was inconsequential and my eyes wanted to be everywhere at once. The set was a simple series of arches: sometimes heavy drapes; sometimes a golden arch of snowflakes; sometimes white filigree, like paper doilies; and finally, festooned with thousands of coloured baubles. There was a huge Christmas tree at the rear of the stage with what seemed like real candles, lit by one of the dancers high on his toes. We entered a stylish Nineteenth Century soirée with extravagant, lavish costumes. Men in brocade jackets with whiskers, women wearing ruched, frilly dresses, bustles and fantastical hairstyles done up in snowflakes, Chopard-style diamond necklaces. Everywhere there was activity: the old aunt, in black lace, takes a turn and needs smelling salts, couples are gently flirting, the children are stealing each other’s lollipops. Calm descends, though, when Drosselmeyer, the magician, arrives encased in a flowing cloak to entertain the guests with his sleight of hand. The children receive special presents: the argy-bargy boys break everything, push the girls, and are the essence of ‘frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails’. The sweet, wholesome, ribboned girls are playful and delighted with their gifts, especially little Clara who received a nutcracker. And so the story begins.
Clara falls into a dream, clutching her nutcracker as she sleeps. Anyone with a fear of mice might recoil at this part, for she dreams that the nutcracker comes to life and, with an infantry of toy soldiers, fights off an infestation of life-size mice! The mouse’s tails are disgustingly long and thick, their big nightmarish heads incongruous against their bodies in girls’ dresses. Then comes king mouse (which K. and I decided was much more like a rat, eugh!) and, unfortunately, the preferred method of pest control is by firing squad from the army of toy soldiers.
The second half continues as dreaming Clara watches from the side of the stage, flanked by two adult sized monkeys, each wearing a Moroccan fez – and why not?! Set pieces represent different sweets – the most famous being the Sugar Plum Fairy. Performers are pulled out of a pick-and-mix bag. Three tumbling jesters, with exploding energy to match their red hair, lips, costume, and tights; their ornate gold-trimmed costumes flash across the stage as they dip and rise. There are three toreadors with a flamenco dancer, and a troupe of fairies with tiaras and so much diamanté on their dresses that they make Jordan’s wedding look tasteful. In a gorgeous set-piece waltz, eight chorus line girls shimmer in midnight blue. The music takes on an oriental tone when a Persian dancer in harem pants performs Arabian Nights-style, her ballet movements take on an eastern influence – like snake charming. Pink fairies take their turn: pink hair, pink bodice, pink tights, pink wisps for skirts – I agreed with K. who thought they looked like candyfloss. The mixed bag of sweets continues with two Chinese dancers and then a sailor with seafaring sideburns, dancing the hornpipe whilst wearing a boater hat. His impossibly light, spinning turns make me dizzy. At last, on comes the Sugar Plum Fairy – like Tinkerbell, a fluffy meringue mixture, airy and light, she practically floats to the music of the glockenspiel. Sometimes she moves like a ballerina in a jewellery box, making such unfeasible shapes with her body that I forget she is really human.
Each came out to dance for the pleasure of the dreaming child who watched (as we did) transfixed, smiling, entranced. Sitting close to the orchestra pit, the music rang into me and I found it thrilling. K. and I agreed that we could feel the music in our bodies, exploding inside of us. For someone like me who doesn’t know much about ballet, this show was like a restaurant tasting menu. It was an intensely visual performance of pure dreamy, escapism; a stage so full of wonder that it was hard to know what to train your eyes onto next. I now declare Christmas well and truly open!