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Preview: Scottish Ballet's Nutcracker at the Theatre Royal

Scottish Ballet artistic director Christopher Hampson looks ahead to the company's visit to Tyneside

Scottish Ballet's The Nutcracker
Scottish Ballet's The Nutcracker

Scottish Ballet boss Christopher Hampson tells DAVID WHETSTONE why The Nutcracker represents the best of the old and the new

The old ones often are the best ones but sometimes they need a bit of sprucing up or dusting down.

This is as true in ballet as in many other areas of life, it seems.

“The first thing to say ahead of coming to Newcastle is that this Nutcracker was originally done in the early 1970s but we have completely redesigned it and re-imagined it,” says Christopher Hampson, artistic director of Scottish Ballet.

“It is a completely new-look production and it has been so well received. We’ve sold out pretty much everywhere we’ve been.

“Nutcracker is a really good family ballet. It is often people’s first introduction to ballet and this one normally does have a lot of children in it, though sadly not in Newcastle because we don’t have the time to rehearse 20 kids for it.”

There are certain to be lots of youngsters in the audience for a ballet summed up by the Theatre Royal as “a dazzling world of dancing snowflakes, sumptuous sweets and a spectacular sugar plum fairy”.

Scottish Ballet's The Nutcracker
Scottish Ballet's The Nutcracker

And even if it is often associated with Christmas, and this revamped production did open mid-December in Edinburgh, many are likely to regard it as a bright spark in a dark month with the festive season fast receding.

With six performances at the Grey Street theatre (including a Saturday matinee which is already sold out), The Nutcracker is one of ballet’s traditional audience-pleasers but Christopher Hampson has extra cause to feel pleased about this particular production.

“It originally premiered in Edinburgh in 1973 and it was choreographed by our founder, Peter Darrell. It’s a really important work and it’s been out of our repertoire for a while.

“I thought it was important to put Peter’s work at the heart of our repertoire.”

Peter Darrell was an innovative dancer and choreographer who, in the post-war years, broadened the appeal of ballet with a succession of admired reinterpretations of classical works notable for their strong narratives and emotional range.

He established a company called Western Theatre Ballet which in 1969 was invited north of the border. Settling in Glasgow, it became Scottish Theatre Ballet and then Scottish Ballet.

Darrell died in 1987 but his legacy includes a compelling body of work and a host of modern admirers, among them Christopher Hampson.

There are, reckons Christopher, hundreds of Nutcrackers.

Andy Ross Christopher Hampson in rehearsals for a Scottish Ballet performance
Christopher Hampson in rehearsals for a Scottish Ballet performance

“It’s a very popular ballet and there are productions across Russia, throughout Europe and all over North America. There are so many different versions.

“I choreographed my own version over 15 years ago for English National Ballet because I knew there’s always a fresh voice it can bring out.

“But what I wanted to do was to find a way of celebrating Peter Darrell with an iconic production – and his most successful ballet was The Nutcracker.”

What Darrell left behind, according to the man who followed in his footsteps, was beautiful choreography.

“But the sets and costumers needed a bit of care and attention. They hadn’t been fully repaired since the 70s and they’d done a good 20 years of touring.

“When you’re investing in new costumes, it’s worth looking at the whole thing. And now, of course, we’ve got technology and areas of expertise that we didn’t have in the early days.”

Christopher brought in Lez Brotherston, the award-winning designer perhaps best known in the North East for his work with Matthew Bourne, to oversee the creation of new sets and costumes.

“What I really wanted to do was to make it so that people who knew the production before – because it was on stage for over 20 years – would get a true sense of what they remembered but, at the same time, it would appear fresh to people seeing it for the first time.

Scottish Ballet's The Nutcracker
Scottish Ballet's The Nutcracker

“It seems to have worked. We have had fantastic feedback from people who remember the original production. It was looking a bit sad by the time it was mothballed in the mid-90s and it is nice to have had it restored.”

As for Lez Brotherston and the Michael Bourne connection, Christopher says: “I’ve known Lez for a number of years and we’ve always looked for the right project to work on.”

When Bourne’s groundbreaking Swan Lake hit the headlines, there was talk of sniffiness among ballet traditionalists who regarded it as a bit too brash and contemporary.

Not in the mind of Scottish Ballet’s now boss, though. He says: “I don’t really segregate dance too much. I think it’s all one thing.

“I think audiences would be surprisaed at how much conversation goes on between us all. After all, we did do Highland Fling.

Scottish Ballet were the first company to be given permission to perform a full-length Matthew Bourne work, normally the preserve of his own New Adventures.

Appointed artistic director of Scottish Ballet in 2012, Christopher Hampson says: “The company needed a new direction and what I felt I was able to offer was a broadening of the repertoire, making sure we’re engaging with as many choreographers of excellence as we possibly can.

“What Scottish Ballet dancers are good at is assimilating different choreography. These people (new choreographers) needed to be coming through the door more often.

“We have done at least seven new productions and worked with 19 or 20 different choreographers over the past two years. That has been my mission.

“That said, we won’t throw the old out for the new. I am the guardian of a national treasure and our heritage has to be well represented in our repertoire.”

The Nutcracker is on at the Theatre Royal from February 11-14. For tickets go to www.theatreroyal.co.uk

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