REVIEW: The Dome, Brighton – Ballet Theatre UK with The Nutcracker and Heath Quartet in a Coffee Concert

You might be forgiven for thinking children are not for Christmas, on experiencing Ballet Theatre UK’s take on Britain’s traditional festive fixture The Nutcracker. How to inject something new to avoid it appearing akin to a worn-out pantomime may be what challenges a ballet company without official arts funding trying to survive into a sixth year.

But having sold out both afternoon and evening houses of their one-day Dome visit in ostensibly providing ballet-loving or simply dance-curious families with what they expect, we found the scenario they reshaped in the name of refreshment seemed to leave the production bereft.

A company of just 13 dancers, two of whom were rested for this matinee performance − a gala evening was to follow – limits the variety of characters possible. But there were no children at the Christmas Eve party, nor any magician. Even the Christmas tree had no lights, even the wallpaper and curtains were entirely black. Times remain austere.

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Tchaikovsky was this afternoon wasting his time in conjuring all sorts of fleeting characters and scenes in music. For a substantial chunk of Act 1 in the party room we had up to three adult couples at a time doing not the one Minuet that Tchaikovsky and choreographer Petipa scheduled but several other variations to different music, all with wine glasses in hand, knocking back the stuff as if there were no tomorrow, and yet not getting the slightest bit drunk.

In Act 2, perhaps the controversial current immigration laws had been abolished. No Spanish, Russian, Chinese or Arabic dances allowed. Instead, replacement respectively by Humbugs, Candy Floss, Peppermints and Turkish Delight. No Waltz for Flowers either. Has the entire earth been given over to growing food? Instead a duet for a Snow Queen and an ensemble for her and two or three others, including Clara.

Clara? Yes, she’s actually there, but she’s an early teenager becoming mates with the Housekeeper’s apprentice Maid. A family friend gives her a nutcracker which, when a mechanical Doll places it under the table, re-emerges as a live Prince. He is then flung into battle (thanks goodness, we’re on firm ground at last) with a handful of mice whose King is defeated when Clara bops him over the head with a borrowed scimitar.

It is, indeed, then off to a Kingdom of Sweets and some semblance of childhood glee and reward to the audience for being necessarily childlike, parentlike or grandparentlike.

After a soulless, almost funless Christmas party, bar a little mayhem when the Doll became a loose cannon, battle did commence with lots of different related action, toy soldiers marching into action, Mice with terrific heads, and Clara not merely spectating. Once the Snow Queen healed the wounded Prince, we had a Waltz of Snowflakes and an Act 2 divertissement with costumes distinguished by some more imaginative headgear. There were some capers, including the fancy that candyfloss sticks could also resemble mopping dusters, but currently the choreography presents and imagines rather too little.

When morning comes and the characters need to nanish, Clara awakens still wearing a necklace from the dream and briefly shares wonderment with the Maid. Next time they take The Nutcracker to the road, whatever frisson Ballet Theatre UK can add to this and the handy pivotal mystery of the The Doll’s role may be their saving factor.

In their Nutcracker Prince and David Brewer, they have a principal capable of being memorable. In the Italian, Luca Varone, Natalie Cawte had a nimble partner who fitted. The pair provided an enjoyable and worthy pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

As Clara, Helena Casado Cortes of Madrid convinced in her acting and appropriately understated dancing. And in Claire Corruble, of the Paris Opera Ballet School, they had an Ice Princess of excellence to be striven for.

Richard Amey

A TRIUMPHANT return to the Corn Exchange by Heath Quartet sent Brighton bounding into its musical Christmas. They are the city’s most listened-to live string quartet, by dint of a Brighton Dome residency and Brighton Festival appearances as well as almost annual Coffee Concert returns under the aegis of the society Strings Attached.

The faces are now familiar, they go with their instruments, and the names are beginning to run one after another in growing familiarity – Oliver Heath and Cerys Jones (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola) and Christopher Murray (cello). And the welcome the full-house audience gave them this time when they took the platform in the round amounted to a happy family reunion.

Gary said afterwards: “We can tell within two seconds of going onstage what the audience will be like and we knew instantly today they were onside.” Pomeroy’s from Durban and a South African ingredient in top string quartets is not unusual. In the 70s, Peter Carter led The Allegri, for example.

Afterwards, they were being approached to appear at Aldeburgh and this concert by the former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists (only days ahead, incidentally of their debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall) was sandwiched between two live R3 from London, one from the Wigmore Hall in an all-Tippett celebration series in which they are doing all his four quartets, and the other on the opening Monday of a special week of Christmas music from The Temple Church’s Winter Festival.

There they played Suk, Arensky and Mozart. The BBC programmers also asked them for this event to learn and play William Alwyn’s Three Winter Poems – Winter Landscape, Frozen Waters and Snow Shower. In happy opportunism, the Snow Shower the Heath bequeathed us at Brighton as a gorgeously apposite and evocative encore, on a bright but (outside) chilly morning in a hall where the weather infiltrates the atmosphere via the large south-facing windows.

A glimpse of this and a taste of a Dome Coffee Concert with audience in the round can be seen in a live streaming of Heath Quartet’s 2012 appearance:

This year they brought Schubert’s single-movement Quartettsatz in C minor, Tippett’s No 3, written just after the war, and Beethoven’s middle Rasumovsky Quartet, the one in E minor. Each a great quartet. Each with which the Heath was entirely at home and at one.

Schubert was launching his phase period of chamber music mastery that progressed all the way to his early death and in this first movement there is recognisable disturbance, if not quite turmoil, in music the composer found he could not follow. The rest of the quartet never came into being after a minimal opening sketch of the intended slow second movement, Chris Darwin tells us in his inimitable programme notes which come free with admission.

The Amadeus Quartet used to have no difficulty convincing us this was the Unfinished Symphony in disguise. They would plunge us into the sobering dark beauty and surging extremes of which this music is capable − whereas the Heath pointed up the underlying Schubertian serenity of purpose and utterance. Not overtly lyrical but conveying its own perfect balance of expressive width. Their extremely soft playing of the already hushed codetta to the exposition and its return caught the breath.

Tippet’s is a world in which the Heath are becoming eminent. Oliver introduced the Third Quartet for us and prepared us for its mystifying and exciting journey, and its aspiration to be Beethovenian. And the quartet’s insight and unity indeed took us on that journey and showed us the work is worthy of standing on the same programme and indeed treads in Beethoven’s initial footsteps towards remote and magnetically retentive regions of artistic evocation and statement beyond the everyday and the bread and butter

Beethoven’s trio of Rasumovsky Quartets throw open a gate as portentous in his own compositional career as does Schubert’s Quartettsatz. Beethoven steps beyond the Haydn and Mozart quartet realm of his previous quartet-writing days, and heads heroically for his own higher hills. This second quartet, Opus 59 No 2, combines a host of Beethovenian moods that gave the Heaths the chance to demonstrate smooth switching from one to another and yet blend a coherent whole that is a total listening experience.

They are so good at this. And in a breadth of repertoire that promises a sustainability and adaptability that should ensure them a long future. May the gods grant them the chemical good fortune to reach all the way down that road.

Richard Amey