20 December 2020 14:32

Kalle Rovanperä Rallying World Rally Championship

Everyone is downsizing their festive parties this year, and the Stahlbaums are no exception. The family whose Christmas shindig begins The Nutcracker have shed a lot of the usual cousins and children as the Royal Ballet works to provide a toothsome yet Covid-secure feast. Snowflakes, choir, mice, divertissements — all are trimmed, but the magic holds. The senior Stahlbaums twinkle cheerily at the party (I enjoyed Kristen McNally's mithering granny and Philip Mosley's soft-centred gramps), and the toymaker Drosselmeyer (Gary Avis) stashes glitter in his hat and looms over the gathering with largely benign mystery. Part of the production's traditional appeal is its overwhelming amplitude — but there's something to be said for scaling it back.

With the orchestra shrunk by more than a third City Ballet's 'A Masquerade Nutcracker' available for streaming through holidays City Ballet of San Diego's award-winning production of the classic holiday ballet "The Nutcracker" has a new spin during a pandemic. "A Masquerade Nutcracker" will be available for streaming Dec. 18 through Jan. 3 at -nutcracker/. Directors Steven and Elizabeth Wistrich, formerly of the Boston Ballet and Stuttgart Ballet, offer a unique version this year of the classic Victorian-era story of "The Nutcracker," but still fashioned after the choreography of the great Russian master, Lev Ivanov, who created the very first "Nutcracker" more than 100 years ago to Pyotr Tchaikovsky's famous score. Audience members can follow the adventures of Clara, the Nutcracker Prince, Herr Drosselmeyer and the Sugar Plum Fairy told through a new magical theatrical experience. The production is dazzling, with virtuoso dancing by the company of professional dancers, complemented by opulent sets and costumes with the children's roles performed by talented young dancers from the City Ballet School, the official school of City Ballet.

Filmed at the company's home theater, the historic Spreckels Theatre, innovative filming allows the audience to become a part of the merriment unlike anything they could experience in the theater, while still keeping all performers safe. Voted San Diego's Best Nutcracker (San Diego Dance Alliance Tommy Award), City Ballet's 26th annual "Nutcracker" returns in a different form as "A Masquerade Nutcracker" for families to enjoy in the comfort of their homes due to the pandemic. Had you told me, this time last year, that 12 months later I would be reviewing Birmingham Royal Ballet's Nutcracker via a crummy laptop wired up to our home telly, while awaiting a Thai takeaway, and to a breathless running commentary from my three-year-old son, George, I would have suggested you go a little easier on the grog. But then again, little about 2020 has worked out quite how anyone expected. Certainly, this month has been a particularly trying one for Britain's three most prestigious ballet companies and their attempts to crack nuts.

Having assiduously jumped through the Government's Covid-bubble-related hoops – largely ruining its wonderful Peter Wright-produced Nutcracker in the process, though still dancing it with heartbreaking love – the Royal Ballet had the plug almost completely pulled on its show by London's banishment into Tier 3 (they're now live-streaming it next Tuesday, and then that's that). As for poor English National Ballet, its Nutcracker's big first night was scheduled for last Thursday, meaning that it never even got off the starting-line – and all this panicky closure as Oxford St and the Tube heave under cheek-by-jowl hordes of Christmas shoppers. Meanwhile, having months ago had to abandon its traditional (currently dark) Midlands home, the Hippodrome, in favour of the less capacious Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham Royal Ballet also had to relinquish any hope of getting a live audience in (Tier 3 again). And, even had the Government's obdurate 1,000-people-only rule not made BRB's the planned subsequent Nutcracker run at the Royal Albert Hall a financial impossibility, that season would anyway have since disappeared down the Tier 3 plughole too. Nevertheless, the BRB show did go on. On Friday evening, the company live-streamed its obligatorily Covid-bubble-friendly Nutcracker (also by Wright, but created in 1990, six years after the Royal Ballet's) from the Rep. Similarly to the Royal's, this is an exasperatingly bowdlerised affair. Ensembles are smaller, child dancers are fewer, and the Rose Fairy is gone, along with some of the Act I ensembles and two musical and choreographic cornerstones of Act II: the Waltz of the Flowers and Dance of the Mirlitons. And so, with projections having to stand in for a lot of designer John Macfarlane's magical scenery, this usually most spectacular of all Nutcrackers – available on demand from this evening until Christmas eve – is a shadow of its usual self. But on Friday evening there were, however, two considerable silver linings. One was the sort of all-in-it-together collective performance at which BRB is so good, along with an extra dash of zip that the arrival of new director Carlos Acosta has brought to the company. César Morales is an impressively punctilious Prince – particularly fine jumping and turning from him – as well as a virile partner to Momoko Hirata's willowy-but-strong Sugar Plum Fairy. Soloist Karla Doorbar is a cute but not cutesy Clara, and first soloist Jonathan Payn an imperious Drosselmeyer, while never forgetting to keep a twinkle is his eye. Of the Act II divertissements – what's left of them, at least – the only one that doesn't quite fly is the Chinese dance, although one of its two performers, Tzu-Chao Chou, does make a cracking, spring-loaded Jack-in-the-Box in Act I. The other upside (apart, that is, from excellent work from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Paul Murphy) was the entirely unplanned presence of George, whose first ever Nutcracker this became. Normally tucked up with his teddy by 7.30, he nevertheless insisted on staying up for the start – and then, for the entire, 85-minute thing. (Galling for adults, this considerably reduced length in fact suited a young attention-span well.) While seeing where he was coming from, I couldn't quite agree with him that the light-as-a-feather, perfectly drilled Snowflake corps "look like squares", still less "tents". But his stream-of-consciousness comments ("Get off, you silly boy!" to Clara's errant little brother, Fritz; "Look how fast that one are going!" about Chou) – and boggle-eyed joining in with the battle between the rats and the toy soldiers – revealed just how fired his imagination was by it, and gave me my first chance since I was a boy to see a Nutcracker through the eyes of a child. So, yes, the straitened circumstances (and applause-free sonic tumbleweed after each passage) are enough to make you weep. But take advantage of them, sit your not-yet-theatre-ready progeny down in front of this (or indeed the Royal's) streamed Nutcracker, and you may yet find your Christmas dusted with a surprising sprinkling of real magic. BRB's Nutcracker is on demand from 7.30pm on Dec 19 until midnight on Christmas Eve: brb.org.uk; the Royal Ballet's live-stream is at 7.30pm on Dec 22: roh.org.uk