Northern Ballet’s The Nutcracker review, Leeds Grand Theatre


David Nixon’s choreography did not disappoint in his annual winter ballet

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Image by Kyle Baines

By Alanah Hammond

Although Northern Ballet has a new Artistic Director, Federico Bonelli, their performance at Leeds Grand Theatre was choreographed by their former Artistic Director David Nixon CBE. Well, why fix something that’s not broken?

I saw Nixon’s The Nutcracker last year and there were no major changes this winter. In fact, the ballet’s warmth and familiarity felt much like Christmas. And, of course, watching this ballet is a festive activity for most because it’s set on Christmas Eve.

The ballet focuses on Clara who receives a magical Nutcracker doll from her Uncle that leads her through the Land of Sweets, where they encounter enchanting characters like the Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen, and Mouse King.

But before we delved into Clara’s dreamland, Northern Ballet acknowledged the challenging times they had faced with limited funds in the arts industry.

An early reflection was useful as the audience then spent the next two acts appreciating the ballet more, pondering how life would be much less colourful without the arts.

The curtains opened and we found ourselves in Regency England. Charles Cusick Smith and Mark Jonathan’s set and lighting design helped us feel as if we, too, were invited into Clara’s house on Christmas Eve.

As soon as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's iconic music began, heads swayed in the audience as we were whisked away to the charm and fantasy of The Nutcracker.

First soloist Rachael Gillespie, who plays Clara, danced beautifully. Her expressive face helped guide the audience from her annoyance at her younger brother Fritz to her bewilderment at Uncle Drosselmeyer’s Nutcracker.

The magic started when this Nutcracker came to life and battled the Mouse King. The latter captivated the audience with his ballet moves, including improvised tail-wagging and flossing.

The Mouse King’s army – consisting of young children ballet dancers – couldn’t help but bring a smile to our faces as they scurried about, looking at each other in the hope that they were all dancing at the same time.

We soon encountered the Sugar Plum Fairy, played by leading soloist Amber Lewis, in the Land of Sweets. Lewis has been performing the Sugar Plum Fairy for more than a decade and it showed – she was impressively elegant in her solo music including the grand pas de deux.

This dance in particular, literally translating to ‘a dance for two’, is one of the most iconic dances in the whole ballet. Most versions have the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier hold a lot of ballet positions but Nixon preferred his dancers to constantly move from one side of the stage to the other. It was a real spectacle.

Overall, the ballet was incredibly enjoyable and a perfect festive activity (solo or with friends or family) to get you in the mood for Christmas. The Nutcracker allowed the audience to revisit our childhood dreams and memories, both past and present, which was rather magical.

Looking ahead to later this year, we have much to look forward to with Northern Ballet. They will be returning to the stage with a timeless love story – Christopher Gable and Massimo Moricone's Romeo & Juliet, opening at Leeds Grand Theatre from 8 March to 16 March 2024.