REVIEW: The Nutcracker – A Happy Dream, The Dome, Brighton,

IF YOU want one, it’s an antidote to this year’s media obsession with everything Victorian about Christmas. But it adds up to an extraordinarily enjoyable and mentally stimulating night at the ballet.

Saturday, 24th December 2011, 5:00 pm

Many people see taking oneself and/or the children to see a performance of The Nutcracker in traditional form as essential to Christmas as sweet brandy butter. It’s often a Victorian Christmas Eve family party in Russia or Germany tingling with familiarity - before becoming a nightmare of warring rats and soldiers transformed into a dream by a doll-turned-human-prince and his eternally happy, snowflaked land of national dances with coffee and chocolate truffle entertainment.

The Nutcracker’s second dimension is Dr Drosselmeyer, the mysterious magical entertainer who can orchestrate a child’s dreaming, begins his post-midnight manipulations. The underthread from ETA Hoffman, author of The Nutcracker & The Mouse King, suggests a possible malevolent motive but Drosselmeyer’s intentions, in most ballet interpretations, prove no more threatening than a spell of sitting on the knee of Santa Claus.

But Peter Schaufuss, one of world ballet’s leading artistes for 40 years, has lived so long with The Nutcracker, as dancer, choreographer, director and producer. It means he has explored extensively its other facets and potential, and so, as with many great ballets, he has unearthed something different that offers a genuine new slant. And a third dimension, of tragedy.

The family Minuet and March of the Toy Soldiers are among the several party numbers axed from Act 1 which indelibly shape and flavour Tchaikowsky’s musical score. Instead, Schaufuss sets the ballet in the now. Clara craves the current must-have Christmas present extolled on her TV. It’s the Nut “Sky” Cracker doll: a cross between an astronaut (connecting with the audience’s grandparents), an American Footballer (Schaufuss’ USA audience), and - most accurately - a Formula 1 racing driver about to step into his car - thankfully minus the advertising.

Instead of Drosselmeyer we have The Dream Master, a loner unfulfilled, other than by his capacity to devise reveries for children. His is the tragedy brilliantly and powerfully perceived by Schaufuss through the ambiguity of Tchaikovsky’s full-blown Grand Pas de Deux. It’s normally a pleasant if grandiose, emotionally neutral and necessarily perfunctory showpiece between either Clara or The Sugar Plum Fairy and The Nutcracker Prince, that just about closes the show.

But in pieces of Tchaikowsky like this, there is an inner anguish of frustration and despair that is unheard in its normal staging. But Schaufuss plunges us straight into this music as a bedsit soliloquy for The Dream Master which, having opened the performance, then closes it as, totally unexpectedly, almost a shock, the obnoxious Ms Black-Boss helplessly offers him consolation.

This third dimension is Schaufuss’ clinching triumph, following with his choreography which shines throughout a production with plenty of fun and joy, including one of the most resourceful and imaginative Waltz Of The Snowflakes you will encounter. His charming national dances were quite special, with costumes suitably festive.

It’s a small company - and orchestra, too. One percussionist meant restriction to a single jazz-like splash-cum-crash cymbal instead of the full two-dish clash, and the limit to 12 string players meant a woodwind and brass-dominated chamber sound. The full sweep of Tchaikowsky was missing but would probably have overblown the Schaufuss interpretation.

The whole experience took the Brighton audience by surprise. None dared applaud a solo until some finally responded to the beguiling Arabic Dance. And none followed that until full-blooded cheers and whistles at the final curtain at last rewarded the super dancing. A normal dance audience response would surely have created a magnificent atmosphere in Act 2. Yet this had evidently been a spell Schaufuss himself had cast.

Ex-Royal Ballet, Stefan Wise, as The Dream Maker lyrically stole the ultimate emotional limelight from Megum Oki as Clara, one of two Japanese-schooled principal girls on the cast. Blond, Danish-trained Johan Christensen conveyed Schaufuss’ imaginative doll dancing with a growing heroism.

I particularly enjoyed Schaufuss’ idea of the national dance couples as party guests in Act 1 and it was an exhilarating surprise when the quarrelling Spanish couple Melanie Lopez and Robin Bernadet came to their vivacious divertissement contribution in Act 2 minus their stamping footwear.

There is much more to tell, but save me the trouble and see it yourself. The show continues until Tuesday, December 27. Then comes Schaufuss’ Romeo & Juliet which reconstructs the choreography Sir Frederick Ashton personally bequeathed to him, and which offers us an alternative view to that of Sir Kenneth MacMillan.

After a void since the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s seasons, The Dome has compellingly recaptured its Christmas classical ballet persona.

By Richard Amey