The Nutcracker

Streamed live from Russia, this Bolshoi Ballet version is 'gorgeous, just gorgeous'

Christmas treats don't come any sweeter or more temptingly gift-wrapped than The Nutcracker, the quintessential white ballet for the festive season.

There have been many interpretations of ETA Hoffmann’s enchanting tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, set to Piotr Tchaikovsky's meltingly beautiful score – such as Matthew Bourne’s current reworking, complete with Dickensian grime and biting social comment, for Sadler’s Wells in London.

But when it comes to good old fashioned nostalgia and fantasy, the definitive version will always belong to the Russians. It was, after all, they who created it in 1892, choreographed by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa and performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg by the Imperial Russian Ballet.

Given its worldwide popularity since the middle of the 20th century, it is hard to believe that the original production was not well received, though Tchaikovsky’s score was rightly hailed as a masterpiece.

For his first production as the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director in 1966, Yuri Grigorovitch took hold of the original quasi-sacred choreography and created something that actually surpassed it. A widely revered figure in the ballet world, he danced the Nutcracker as a student at the Bolshoi school and holds it very dear to his heart.

He has successfully addressed the recurring problem of the original production’s structural imbalance, wherein all the story is contained in the first act and all the dance in the second. The result is a constantly flowing retelling of the familiar story of the toys that come to life, and a teenage girl named Maria (better known to western audiences as Clara) who morphs into the Sugar Plum Fairy in the dreamworld of Act II.

The Bolshoi Ballet Live in HD Season has been a tremendous success, both for the legendary Moscow company and for Queen's Film Theatre, where it is screened for Northern Irish audiences. As queues grow at the QFT box office for the highly prized tickets, which sold out weeks ago, screens in the cinema's foyer show glimpses of our counterparts in Moscow, braving the ice and snow for a night at the ballet.

In the QFT bar, customers sip their courtesy glasses of festive champagne while the live satellite stream connects us with elegant women in leather boots and velvet coats, children in party dresses and the ordinary hoi polloi of the Russian capital progressing into the Bolshoi’s magnificent, newly-renovated gilded auditorium.

But they do not see what we see, via the screens: shots of the stage hands putting the finishing touches to the scenery, the young members of the corps de ballet warming up back stage, the soloists in their dressing rooms applying their make-up and having last minute adjustments made to their costumes.

From our vantage point, we hear the applause in Moscow as music director Pavel Klinichev makes his way into the orchestra pit, and we watch the players raise their instruments and strike up Tchaikovsky's oh-so familiar overture.

The curtain slowly rises on a darkened, snowy street scene, through which revellers, families and lone figures make their way home on Christmas Eve. A silence falls on both audiences as the magic of The Nutcracker unfolds.

What strikes one immediately about the Bolshoi’s presentation is the crispness of its dance technique and the high definition of its production values. From the moment we are transported into the affluent drawing room of the Silberhaus household, where a tall Christmas tree is laden with toys and trimmings, we are plunged into a series of ravishing set pieces. We hope they will never end.

One by one, the toys are presented to Marie and her brother Fritz by Denis Savin’s expressive, conniving Drosselmeyer. The last to emerge is a scarlet Nutcracker, all gangling limbs and cheeky face.

Nina Kaptsova is at first bewitching and charming as the excited young Maria, then regal and magnetic as the Sugar Plum Fairy. It takes a rare talent to balance both roles convincingly, and the brilliance and fluidity of her dancing is strongly complemented by Artem Ovcharenko as the dashing Nutcracker Prince.

The pastel-coloured 'Waltz of the Flowers' is a thing of rare beauty, prefacing the tender union of the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy before whisking us back to the warmth of the Silberhaus home as Christmas Day dawns. Gorgeous, simply gorgeous.

For more information on The Bolshoi Ballet Live in HD Season in Belfast click on the links below.