A new venture will always feel a little precarious at the start and there can be nothing quite so daunting as the responsibility of creating a new production of The Nutcracker, a seasonal staple, which is often the precursor to a life long passion for dance for many children. It was the inaugural season of Brecon Festival Ballet, the first classical Nutcracker to be created in Wales for a predominantly Welsh company (82 out of a cast of 99) and is almost certainly the first ballet of its kind to involve an entire community. Most notable though, is that in spite of enormous risks which inevitably go hand in hand with a project like this, it was a runaway success. Every performance was sold out and tickets were in such high demand that the dress rehearsal had to be opened up to the public. So popular was it, that the company has already been booked for next year with extra performances.
The project began many months ago when Katy Sinnadurai, artistic director of Brecon Festival Ballet and a senior ballet and Pilates teacher at Mid Wales Dance Academy, saw a gap in the market. She started talking to as many people as she could, to see if they would be interested in collaborating on a full scale classical production. A former professional dancer with the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich as well as London City Ballet, she is no stranger to the challenges that arise with presenting a classic. However, undaunted, she has succeeded in giving the small town of Brecon, a Nutcracker that is good enough to grace any stage, with equal success.
Sinnadurai not only gave the students of MWDA opportunities to discover what it was like to step into a professional production, but also the students of King’s International Ballet Academy based in Leicestershire. Local people, a handful with previous acting experience, filled the stage as guests at the Stahlbaum’s party; Welsh artist and designer Gemma Schiebe, was commissioned to paint the backdrop for Act II’s Kingdom of Sweets (a first for her and a magnificent achievement); costumes were designed by Rachel Giaccone and, with her “wonderful sewing group”, brought the ballet to life with some outstanding results. The production even had a live orchestra – the Welsh Chamber Orchestra conducted by Anthony Hose, alongside a choir for the Snowflake scene led by Delyth Blainey Taylor. Theatr Brycheiniog offered its facilities including an enormous rehearsal studio and props and furniture were made by whomsoever felt able to deliver the goods. A word too for the Lighting Designer/Stage Manager, Kyle MacPherson, who has created a stage lit and fit for any West End venue. To add to this, 10 professional dancers were hired to dance the principal roles as well as former West End and television actor, Gareth Phillips, who took on the role of Godfather Drosselmeier. Of course, it would not have worked as well if the choreography had been mediocre but in the event, Sinnadurai has choreographed a production that was meticulous in detail, reflected absolutely the splendour of Tchaikovsky’s score and measured with intelligence, the differences in abilities and ages, amateur and professional standards, which were all for catered accordingly.
At the three performances I saw, the standard of dancing belied the actual rehearsal time, as restrictions meant that casts were gathered together for odd weeks over the course of the year.
How it came together is a miracle of organisation, hard work and a concerted effort by a remarkable and dedicated group of people. To add to this, it is an uncomplicated, totally child-friendly account of the ballet with no hidden darkness woven into the simplicity.
It opened with the introduction of families walking along the street, misbehaving children, and Drosselmeier heading towards his goddaughter, Clara’s house, showing us the Nutcracker doll he wants to give her. Phillips captivated us instantly with his warmth and kindness, his every movement and look, suggestive of a deeply caring person. As the front cloth rose on the party preparations, the drawing room setting, complete with (growing) Christmas tree, was charming. Characters were easy to identify and narrative was clear from the outset. One of the successes of the Prologue is that the audience knew whom to follow. In spite of a large cast, focus was never diverted to something incidental, thus none of the action got lost. This was especially effective during Drosselmeier’s magic tricks (Phillips is actually adept at the execution of said tricks!). As party guests flooded the stage, whether tiny or elderly, each had their own back story. By the time Drosselmeier brought on his three dolls to entertain the guests, the audience was in thrall. Professional dancer Orion Hart led the way with an appropriately robotic Harlequin, with Monique Aaliyah joining him as an equally wooden Columbine. Both dancers were impeccable in their delivery and when Berwyn Cooper, who is still a student with Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, had whipped up a frenzy as the Soldier doll – wonderfully musical at each performance – the standard and pace were set.
There were some very convincing cameos among the older folk during the grandparents’ dance, in particular, an amusing Julie Jones, who teetered around with dizziness before being helped to her seat.
The transformation/battle scene was tremendous with both excitement and humour. Rats (lead by Karol Cysewski) in fighting form were a good match for a vivacious battalion of soldiers (some on horseback). It was also the moment we were introduced to the Nutcracker in the form of Joel Morris. It’s hard to believe Morris has already enjoyed 18 professional years, dancing all over the world. He has an exceptionally youthful appearance and a charm and sincerity that would win over any audience.
Thus far, I have not mentioned Lowri Shone as Clara. At the start, she appeared vulnerable and childlike but she built beautifully on the transition from adolescent to young woman in love, mirroring exactly the development of the technical challenges along the way. Most appealing, was her radiant stage presence which got better and better as she grew in confidence. The pairing of Morris and Shone in the pas de deux post-battle scene, when Clara’s love for the Nutcracker has released a curse and transformed the doll into Nathaniel, Drosselmeier’s nephew, was astute casting. It was at this moment that they really came into their own. Much warmth and spontaneous chemistry between them emerged in a heart-warming and touching union. Leading into the snow scene, the corps de ballet of flakes was made up almost entirely of students, some of whom were only 14. Yet, disarmingly, they looked like a corps of many years experience – strong pointe work, immaculate lines and most importantly – listening to the music as if their lives depended on it. By the third show, Maestro Hose had moved the tempi up a notch (which worked well across the board) but this 20 strong team of fluttering flakes was unfazed and just danced faster.
Act II was equally abundant with moments to cheer. Opening with a reminder that Drosselmeier had whisked Clara away on a sleigh pushed by Nathaniel, as they arrived in the Kingdom of Sweets, it was clear that Sinnadurai had thought this out very logically. Clara and Nathaniel had a globe in the corner where they were seated awaiting the entertainment. The arrival of each of the divertissements was pre-empted by Clara pointing to a country on the globe.
The Spanish was led by Josie La Galesa, a flamenco dancer who brought all her flair and expertise to make this an exceptionally engaging dance. Aaliyah and Cysewski displayed technical assurance and allure in the Arabian. The Chinese gave the youngest students their moment of glory and the Mirliton dance, in gorgeous tutus with a distinctly Welsh theme, was a huge hit. Poppy Jardine, Poppy Downing, Hollie Johnstone and Emily Parry, all students at King’s, proved that they were not only good performers but capable of conquering difficult choreography. In the Russian, Luc Burns, another King’s student, made a terrific impression with confident split jumps and boundless energy. Waltz of the Flowers included entrances from the principals, and we got our first real glimpse of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in action.
At the first performance, it was Natasha Trigg and Donatien Ravet who majestically took to the stage. Ravet is an experienced professional, having danced all the major roles in the classical repertoire and it was a pleasure to see him bring this knowledge to both his dancing and partnering. Trigg is not as experienced, but nevertheless gave a very accomplished account of a grand pas de deux that is as exhausting as it is challenging. Her beautiful physique served her well and she looked especially elegant in her solo. In a different cast Jemma Beatty and Robbie Moorcroft brought different qualities to their performances. Beatty has a softness to her dancing and her lovely port de bras made for a ‘ballerina’ quality throughout. Moorcroft was a solid partner, with big jumps and a strong presence. At the performance I saw, there were some minor hiccups during the pas de deux, which I am sure were ironed out at later showings but overall, these were polished partnerships in both casts. Indeed, there were so many individuals and teams of people who contributed to making the production a success – Brecon can be proud to add The Nutcracker to the list of attractions in the area. However, the ultimate honours must be awarded to Katy Sinnadurai, who has a much deserved triumph on her hands.