What defines the Christmas season? Is it tradition and custom, or perhaps decorations, lights, sparkle, and glitz? Is it the excitement of the build-up, or relaxing, taking time out from our busy lives for some home comforts? Is the holiday associated with jetting off to exotic climes, or is it about reconnecting, seeing family maybe, re-visiting the places of our youth?
For those living in England’s capital, including all the many expats living in London, there is a great deal on offer, with both more time and more space to enjoy it. The great metropolis - normally frantic and abuzz – feels decidedly quiet at the end of the year. Streets feel emptier. Traffic lighter. Its pace altogether slower, as if the city is taking a breath, gearing up for New Year.
For lovers of art and classical music, the choice of distractions is mesmerising. One of the many brilliant ways to spend two hours is to catch a showing of ‘The Snowman’, based on the classic children’s wordless picture book and beloved at this time of year. A British production from Raymond Briggs dating back to 1978, ‘The Snowman’ is most closely associated with its enigmatic soundtrack, with music composed by Howard Blake, including that most iconic of songs, ‘Walking in the Air.’
Another ageless festive staple offered by London in December is ‘The Nutcracker’, perhaps the world’s most famous ballet, based on a magical world in which a child’s toys come to life at the stroke of midnight. The girl’s nutcracker – a doll of a toy soldier with origins in German folklore – is the hero of this tale, while the evil Mouse King is most definitely the villain. This is the ballet that inspired virtually every other.
Based on a story from 1816 by Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffman, this Christmas fairy-tale only became a ballet when Ivan Vsevolozsky, director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres, first commissioned it in 1891. Its music came from Russian composer Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, shortly before his death, while the original choreography came from French ballet dancer Marius Petipa, whose prolific career centred around St Petersburg where, a week before Christmas in 1892, ‘The Nutcracker’ debuted at the city’s Mariinsky Theatre.
It was here that a well-heeled Russian audience first heard some of what would become ballet’s most memorable songs, including ‘Russian Dance’ and, of course, ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.’ Interestingly, Tchaikovsky was none too impressed with ‘The Nutcracker,’ later writing that it was “infinitely worse than Sleeping Beauty, of this I am sure”. Indeed, he turned down the initial commission and needed to be persuaded to deliver the compositions we all now know so well.
On its legacy, at least, he appears to have been a poor judge: it quickly became a hit and has remained so ever since. For almost half a century the Russians kept it to themselves, only exporting it in 1934, when the ballet came to England. It landed in San Francisco a decade later, in 1944, and from there it headed east to New York City, its popularity having grown after Walt Disney used some of Tchaikovsky’s music from ‘The Nutcracker’ in his animated musical film, ‘Fantasia.’
Today, ‘The Nutcracker’ is performed across many different London theatres over Christmas, but surely one of its most renowned venues is the magnificent Royal Albert Hall, where this two-act festive favourite comes alive through the world-class dancers from Birmingham Royal Ballet and an incredible full symphony orchestra above the stage. A delight from start to finish, in this correspondent’s opinion few other versions even come close.
The story begins with Clara and her family hosting a Christmas Eve party. Her mysterious godfather, Dr Drosselmayer, has been invited. This skilled toymaker, who is always full of surprises, gifts Clara a nutcracker, with which she falls in love. When the guests depart and the family retire for bed, Clara worries about her beloved nutcracker, so she sneaks back to the Christmas tree and falls asleep with it in her arms. Then, on the stroke of midnight, the nutcracker and all the other toys come to life. Thus begins their adventure – through snow and magic. The nutcracker becomes a prince who encounters both the evil Mouse King and the Sugar Plum Fairy, before finally carrying Clara back to the Christmas tree and safety, where she awakens, her beloved nutcracker still under her arm.
The audience’s visual and audible appreciation on the two sold-out nights showed how this was one of the most sophisticated performances of this world-famous ballet, with stunning lighting, majestic period costume, and world-class projections. The whole production was a masterclass in art and elegance. A family of four, whose evening there was a Christmas present for their six-year-old daughter, described it as “absolutely wonderful and amazing”. The youngster’s favourite part? “When Clara was dancing!” She then described how she was doing ballet herself, before confidently demonstrating a pirouette.
Not only has this ballet survived the test of time; it has inspired generations to dream, while serving as an introduction to classical music for countless children and young adults. Sarah, another young mother in the audience, said she took her daughter to see the show for the first time when she was four years old. “I will never forget the sparkle and wonder in her eyes. Straight after, she asked to enrol in ballet classes and has been dancing passionately ever since.”
Another couple, whose child was left similarly enchanted, agreed that Christmas “would not be complete without a trip to the Nutcracker”, adding: “This production was the most magical one we have seen. From the giant baubles appearing in the air to the snow falling, it was a festive treat for the whole family.”
As the author Roald Dahl once said, those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. If ever you are in London over Christmas, my advice is to go in search.