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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 21 MARCH 2010 — Few ballets bring as much pleasure to the general public around the holiday season as the ever-popular Casse-Noisette (The Nutcracker), reprogrammed in Paris after only a two year absence. But while Marius Petipa’s main concern in 1892 was solely to provide lighthearted entertainment for the Christmas and New Year celebrations in Russia, Rudolf Nureyev’s version, created in Berlin in 1979 but reworked and premiered at the Paris Opera six years later, favoured Hoffmann’s supernatural tale with its psychological depths, in which the Sugar Plum fairy and the Kingdom of Sweets are banished forever. With little of the original Ivanov* choreography surviving except for the grand pas de deux of Act 2, Nureyev adapted the work freely and made it so much more than a quintessential ballet for children, appealing as it does to  audiences of all ages.

For a matinee performance in early December, I found myself sitting next to a small girl of four and half on one side and a lady who could have been anything between eighty-five and ninety-five on the other. Both had their eyes glued to the stage, on the dancing, on the costumes, and, of course, on the grandiose, glittering Christmas tree with the gaily wrapped gifts below, and got up from their seats to applaud lengthily and lustily with the rest of the auditorium as the curtain came down.

Paris Opera Ballet: Casse-Noisette
Photo:Julien Benhamou

Choreographically, it is one of Nureyev’s outstanding achievements. The Snowflake scene, followed closely by a lyrical and romantic pas de deux between Clara and her prince in the snowy forest, holding hands and moving side by side, is extremely beautiful, particularly when danced as it was by Emmanuel Thibault and the gentle, delicate Myriam Ould Braham on a second performance I attended in January. From the moment Ould Braham arrived on stage in the first act, still a child, in the splendid grand ‘salon’ of 1900 devised by the legendary Nicholas Georgiadis, she convinced by the quiet  charm and grace of each of her gestures.

In Kirov style, but also because he had always enjoyed working with children, Nureyev chose to include many of the young pupils from the Opera School, and he showed them off to advantage when they dance in rows like a small corps de ballet. They eagerly greet the appearance of Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer, cloaked like a magician as he entertains them, bringing toys to life before finally transforming himself into Clara’s dream hero, the handsome prince of Act 2.

By the beginning of the second act, Ould Braham had beautifully accomplished that fragile transition from pretty adolescent to poised young woman, and together with Thibault, began their grand pas de deux, full of grace and musicality. Their joy in dancing together flowed over onto their audience.

With the gorgeous costumes and spectacular staging, this production, unsurprisingly, always performs to packed houses whenever it is programmed. 

Moreover, while it is a bonus to see a delightful cast such as Thibault and Ould Braham, it is a work which does not suffer too much when the central roles are under-cast as they were for a first matinee performance I saw in December. It is obviously a let-down to see lesser interpreters sweating over Nureyev’s exceptional but technically difficult choreography in that fabled Act 2, but the whole ballet is such a feast for the eyes and ears and gives so many opportunities for other dancers to show their worth, that almost any acceptable performance sends one home on a high. However, it was somewhat disconcerting to realize, that what the little girl had loved most that day of all were neither Clara nor her prince, but the mice!

*This was originally Petipa’s ballet, but, having written the libretto, ill-health obliged him to hand over the work to his assistant, Ivanov.

 Patricia Boccadoro is Dance Editor for

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