REVIEW: The Nutcracker - Vienna Festival Ballet at Martlets Hall, Burgess Hill.

The Nutcracker
The Nutcracker
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Music, Tchaikovsky; choreography, Kenneth Burke after Petipa; additional choreography and restaging, Emily Hufton.

Clara, Perdita-Jayne Lancaster; Fritz, Valentina Leali; Nutcracker King, Ben Cook; Sugar Plum Fairy & Cavalier, Helena Casado Cortes & Yoshimasa Ikezawa; Trepak Dancer, Ashley Selfe. Harlequin, John O’Gara.

Haywards Heath and Burgess Hill, with no major theatre building, might easily miss out on a traditional Christmas time taste of the season’s most popular ballet. But Vienna Festival Ballet ensure this does not happen. The company’s 35 years of British touring recently brought them to Heath’s Clair Hall but this year they have switched to Martlets Hall in favour of improved stage facilties.

There are still limitations, such as prevented a full snow scene. But with starry lighting and appropriate costumes, audience imagination could accommodate the fantasy of the Snowflakes Waltz in a domestic house setting which by then had already hosted an effervescent Christmas Eve children’s party, then a raging nightmarish battle of nutcracker soldiers and dastardly giant mice.

It was a full house − of both audience and partyers − and the wide stage created a panorama of space at times brilliantly filled by a company of only 15 dancers, four of them boys. Act 1, launched by Perdita-Jayne Lancaster’s happy lines as Clara, had an exciting air of perfection and spectacle with ballet mistress Emily Hufton’s staging ultimately taking the plaudits.

There was a stack of different, often counter-activity, pleasure and mischief at the party, with VFB’s acting standards reaching a new high. The jinks and japes were fully thought and dramatised through. Valentina Leali’s Fritz was a constant infuriation and wheeze, and Bernadette Patterson’s creaking Grandmother left everyone taken aback during the adults’ Minuet by her suddenly resurrected outrageous youth and energy.

The battle was a dreamy haze and blaze of coherently-choreographed chaos and fear with the two leading military figures crowning the action like giant spitting fireworks. I could hear no repercussions from the little girl who before the performance even began had been wailing at the auditorium door refusing to enter. “I’m too frightened,” she lamented to her near-despairing mother. I trust she was transformed into a silence of child’s wonder and did not have to watch the waltzing Snowflakes through a cloud of tears.

The Nutcracker Act 1 is potentially one of ballet’s most delightful and richly entertaining sequences but it’s not every touring company which has the fuller artistic demeanour and enterprise to make you smile and empathise like VFB do.

In Act 2’s Kingdom of Sweets, after VFB’s dashing quartet of Spanish girls, Clara herself joins in with some of the divertissement dances. Lancaster gave us a Clara with no technical hesitations in joining in the contrasting Chinese Duo, the pan-piping Mirlitons, then the comedy of VFB’s own take on the Harlequin Dance with his red clown’s onesie and mauve mop-top, danced with relish by John O’Gara.

Several dancers starred in more than one of these dances and Martlets Hall reaction rose rightly to a cheer at cossack Ashley Selfe’s exceptional agility and elan in the solo Trepak.

The two pas de deux paired Ben Cook’s Nutcracker Prince with Lancaster who was touching in her grief over the apparent loss of her hero. Their partnership enabled them to thrill in two sudden diving lifts near the culmination. Likewise, when The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier duetted, the two rapid reversing jumps she makes exultantly onto his right shoulder were safe in the hands of Japanese, Yoshimasa Ikezawa, from Hiroshma, and Helena Casado Cortes, from Madrid.

VFB are often this broadly international and Cortes, here personally adds another top Tchaikowsky solo role to the Clara she danced with Ballet Theatre UK, and is showing in her second year at VFB what a striking and adaptable attraction she is. Along, of course, with VFB’s wardrobe, from which she emerged with the night’s best tutu.

The 35th Anniversary Tour Brochure is a wide window on what makes Vienna Festival Ballet distinctively long-lived. In one of its interviews, their longest-serving dancer, Samantha Bosshardt, explains her enthusiasm for the chance to tackle and triumph in so many guises. In the old 1960s she’d have been brilliant housewife, good at everything.

Here in 2015, obviously enjoying, too, all the changes of costume, she began her evening’s work as the Maid who not only welcomed in all the guests and kept the party topped up with drinks, but also took on the repeated task of trying to reason with Fritz. Then she led the Nutcracker’s Soldiers into battle. After that, she was into a frothy Snowflakes waltzing dress, then a flouncy red Spanish one, and finally a pale blue tutu as the additional role of Queen of the Flowers that VFB use to keep that famous Waltz engaging.

Bosshardt, with her versatility, clean delivery and welcoming face, keeps VFB in Springtime. And she helped turn the Martlets Hall audience into fans on this the company’s debut here.

Vienna Festival Ballet tour from March with Coppelia and Swan Lake. The first Sussex dates confirmed are Horsham Capitol Theatre (Coppelia) on March 3 and Bognor Regis (Coppelia) on March 19.

Richard Amey

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