From Russia, with love

The Moscow City Ballet’s Nutcracker was enchanting, but only if you’re watching it for the first time

Fancy seeing the Nutcracker in the middle of spring? The answer was no, judging by the half-empty seats at the Richmond Theatre last Friday during the Moscow City Ballet’s one-day performance.

Two months out of date, the traditional yuletide story was at its most intimate, with the audience slyly moving closer to the stage and the live band as the first act progressed.

The story of how Clara’s Nutcracker prince came to life at Christmas is so entrenched in memories of childhood that any alteration to the original version would have been quite daring (anyone remember Swan Lake’s all-male cast at Sadler’s Wells last winter?).  So when the ballerinas went into the familiar patterns and schematics, it was both familiar and enchantingly predictable.

The performance at first was shaky and amateurish — a lot of arm movements from the corps de ballet pointing at anything and everything in general were confusing, ropey and awkward. The main part of the first Act, where the Christmas tree is decorated and the presents are opened, was too long and involved little to no footwork.

The performance eventually went into full swing when the snowflakes appeared on stage, with beautiful movements that showed the skill of the dancers and proved just how talented choreographer and director Victor Smirnov-Golovanov was.

Further praise should be given to Smirnov-Golovanov for the varied sizes and shapes of his ballerinas.  Dancers of all ages and sizes with beautiful costumes and well-orchestrated sequences showed their talent throughout the scene. Something so rare and refreshing is hard to find in such a prominent corps de ballet and should be applauded and encouraged.

After a hard winter that left me mostly cold, spring transformed the ballet into something surprisingly magical. The floral scenery, the spectacular dancing and an orchestra that tickled my eardrums blended the melody so sumptuously into the story that it left me wanting more.

The star of the show was without a doubt Talgat Knozhabaev as Clara’s godfather. With dramatic fervour he dominated the stage and was always the centre of attention – whether he intended to be or not.  Moments that I had never previously considered humorous made me laugh, such as the pantomimesque moment where he goes up behind the prince (played by an energetic Kanat Nadyrbeck) and covers his eyes repeatedly, spinning him around several times only to do the same motion again.

Clara, played by Maria Micheva, was stronger with her prince than alone, managing to combine both delicacy and completely flawless execution during the fastest twirls and lifts.

The production had its flaws. After the slow and clumsy Act One, I wasn’t sure whether the entire production would be as lack-lustre. As Clara soared into the air with her godfather, however, everything that came before mattered little. The audience was spellbound, and even without words, the passion between Clara and her would-be lover was intoxicating.

This isn’t a production for those who have seen the Nutcracker before, as it is impossible not to find fault compared to other productions. It is a joyful first glance into the world of ballet and a wonderful introduction to one of the best-loved stories of all time, a lovely experience for those open-minded enough to overlook the lack of technical ambition.

As the final curtain dropped and applause thundered across the theatre, Knozhabaev poked his head out and cheekily motioned us to keep quiet. Don’t worry; the magic of the Nutcracker in spring will be our little secret.

Image courtesy of ATG Richmond Theatre and the Moscow City Ballet


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