The Nutcracker, which was originally adapted into a ballet in 1892 by Tchaikovsky from ETA Hoffmann’s 1816 short story of the same name, has long heralded oncoming winter festivities. Yet it is also tainted by an air of fustiness, as audiences have increasingly criticised the cultural insensitivities of the ballet, most notably the dance sequences portraying “Arabian coffee” and “Chinese tea” in Act II.
Thankfully, this new version, which is directed by the Olivier Award-winning Drew McOnie and showing at London’s Southbank Centre’s Tuff Nutt Jazz Club, broadens the ballet’s horizons. In McOnie’s hands, the commercial jazz choreography – masterfully executed by six dancers – becomes a playground for exploring individuality and identity, and the soft jazz score alludes to Tchaikovsky’s composition.
The set, which was designed by Soutra Gilmour, is akin to a 1960s jazz club, with low, warm lighting. The physical proximity of the dancers – to each other on stage, and to the audience, who are seated in the round – creates an intimacy well suited to the show’s personal focus. In McOnie’s modern adaptation, Clara is now Clive (Mark Samaras), a young boy who lives at home with his distracted single father. The Nutcracker becomes a macho Action Man doll (Amonik Melaco), a gift from father to son – but Clive is more interested in his tree’s Sugar Plum Fairy (Patricia Zhou).
Throughout the performance the dancers explore themes of gender nonconformity and the breaking of social norms through cheeky vaudeville-esque sequences, larger-than-life chaîné turns, and flashy-sequin costume changes designed by Ryan Dawson Laight. The score, composed by Cassie Kinoshi and performed live by four musicians, pays homage to Tchaikovsky by incorporating the iconic “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and giving it a sultry jazz twist.
At only an hour long, this compact Nutcracker is a refreshing new take on the most established of theatrical traditions.
28 October 2023 – 6 January 2024
[See also: The confessions of Robbie Williams]
This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures