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BRB Nutcracker at the O2


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It's late, so I won't say much, but I did want to congratulate BRB's technical team on managing to transfer their production of Nutcracker to the barn O2 so well. It looked very good. I haven't seen it for over a decade, so I'll leave it to Janet and others with more recent experience to say if anything has changed.

 

Some practicalities: with a late start and I suspect a longer interval than intended, it finished at just after 10 pm. The orchestra non-pit is in front of the stage, so nobody will be very close, and I think some people might have the harps in their line of sight quite badly.

Edited by alison
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This was our first ever Nutcracker (how's that, i hear you ask!) and so interesting to see it in such a venue. The staging and dancing were excellent. Being on the sides meant that we couldn't see the tree change, and maybe a better use of the cameras using wide angle rather than close ups at that pont would have helped everyone in the same position.

 

However, the story was super and the dancing of the usual high standard for BRB. The space did seem to be relished by the dancers, althou probably hard work covering all the ground.

 

I don't think I would go to watch ballet at the O2 again - but Well done to BRB for pulling it off.

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First of all, well done to BRB's dancers and backstage staff - an excellent production put over con brio. (But was the 'fog of war' just a bit dense and persistent in the battle with the rats?)

 

However, I'm less enthusiastic about the experience and, on last night's evidence, consider ENB's in-the-round shows at the Albert Hall a far superior vehicle for reaching out to an extended audience. My seat was head-on to the stage, right at the top of Level 1 - which I would say was a good deal further away from the action than the back seats in the amphitheatre at Covent Garden. As a result, the Stahlbaums' drawing room appeared as something of a doll's house, and the movement was accordingly diminished in scale. A partial remedy was available in the single TV screen above the stage, which brought close-ups but lost almost all action to the sides. And despite amplification, at that distance I felt that a bit more orchestral sound would not have gone amiss ..... the reason, perhaps, for a chap next to me appearing to be asleep for most of the evening?

 

Sightlines must be critical for events such as last night, and it appears the critics were at first seated very badly but were able to take advantage of plentiful empty seating to improve their view for Act 2. At a guess, I'd say that some 30% of the available seating was free last night, and many of those attending must have been there in cut-price seats, thanks to the various promotions on offer. If that proves the case for the remaining performances, then the bottom line for this venture may look a little gloomy.

 

Finally, and in the hope that the wrath of the McElderry Massive will not fall about my head as has happened under Ismene Brown's review on Arts Desk, can I just say that I could have done without the young man in question, his lost final consonants and inaccurately stressed Latin? Yes, his pitching was accurate and his tone almost sweet, but why he opened the night is beyond me.....but he was very neatly and balletically ushered off by Drosselmeyer's assistant so that we could get on with the main business. A nice touch!

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Birmingham Royal Ballet

The Nutcracker

London, O2 Arena

27 December 2011

 

We are at the stage in arena ballet where nobody knows exactly what may work or not. The Royal Ballet did well at the O2 with MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, presented on an open stage, but The Nutcracker always has some transformation scene and that’s hard without a proscenium arch to present it properly. And Birmingham Royal Ballet’s transformation scene is a particularly wonderful one too – not the type of thing to sacrifice: indeed the whole production is thought by many to be the best in the land, so tamper at your peril. Word was that BRB were going to put in a false proscenium, but surely then people at the sides would not see so much of the action (it’s the horseshoe theatre problem writ large) with difficult sight lines for many. “I find the whole thing a very exciting challenge” said Peter Wright, the much loved and respected creator of it all.

 

Aside from the huge artistic and technical aspects of bringing off a success, it all has to be financed and sold to what is a new, or at best occasional, audience and with big numbers needed too, orders of magnitude ahead of what a normal theatre takes. Enter Victor Hochhauser, the O2 and Universal Music Arts and Entertainment. And what they contrive to bring to the party is a billing of:

The Nutcracker introduced by Joe McElderry

 

X Factor and Popstar to Opera Star winner Joe McElderry will be taking to the stage at The O2 this Christmas when he introduces the celebrated family Christmas ballet The Nutcracker.

 

From 27 to 30 December 2011 Victor Hochhauser and The O2 in association with Universal Music Arts and Entertainment will present six magical performances of Sir Peter Wright’s world acclaimed interpretation of the Christmas classic, with Joe McElderry performing a selection of festive songs prior to the curtain rising.

 

The purist in me objects, but ballet needs to get out and boogie with new folks and so why not I suppose, though again it gave more pause for thought about if it would work or come over as a weird hotchpotch.

 

True to their word, BRB had put in a vast proscenium arch but the stage bursts forward by 20 yards in front and there are doors to either side of the arch so entrances can be made to the front easily. In front of the stage is the orchestra, on the same level as those sitting in the flat stalls area – not good sight lines, I think, even if you could see through the orchestra, with the stage placed higher and so chopped off feet. You do though see all the set. I had a seat near the stage but to the side and to say that much of the scenery couldn’t be seen is a huge understatement. You can move back, as I did, and you see a bit more of the stage behind the proscenium but then the dancers are more distant. To try to help us all see better, high above the proscenium arch was a huge video screen homing in on the action, or the director’s cut of the action. I have to say that the Royal Ballet had more screens and angled at the audiences on the side, which was more effective.

 

The evening duly started with the diminutive Joe McElderry, who did OK with 2 festive numbers and one from his new album. It didn’t do much for my spirits however and I just thought that the ‘cost’ at the other end of the evening would be in missing a nice train home from what is already a tedious place to get to. I hope somebody is doing market research on whether McElderry helped sell the show or hinder ticket sales. Nothing against him, but I do hope he didn’t sell seats and dance can present itself for itself in future.

 

The handover from McElderry to Nutcracker ballet was well done – Wright had the Magician’s Assistant (James Barton), caper on, bow to him and go into furious applause to encourage us all in a another clap of thanks, before extravagantly scooping up the music-stand and guiding the lad off, all in excited character. It was very much a feeling of ballet reclaiming the night. And then we were off, with the overture, brief plot of act 1 rolling up the video screen, and the curtain raising to show the standard Stahlbaum home in all its richness. Wright usefully draws out the party to the front stage which means you see more than you might have. The RB Sinfonia sounded in fine fettle too, though rather quiet, and in act 2 they dialled up the amplifiers. The party itself was hard to track from so far away but the video showed some great bits of action… if with the downside that you missed lots of other action. Drosselmeyer was the great Robert Parker, but the magic bits, always a challenge anyway, just looked very unspecial and small in a place used to very, very, slick shows. The transformation all happened as it should, apart from an over-abundance of smoke for a while, and, on our side, we couldn’t see the fireplace and the Rats entrance from it – a highlight that always brings a lump to my throat. Enough could see it and there was applause for the effect. But all up I felt rather dispirited that an old friend of a work seemed to be struggling.

 

But then things got better as the corps snowflakes did their thing, which you could see without video, but which video enhanced with little closeups. Clara was also free to dance with her Nutcracker prince – again well captured on the screen if a little distorted from our side view. Act 2 was the same, ballet in its classical element and the audience able to see its cleverness and beauty. John Macfarlane’s designs continue to hold up well I think and I can never see the Mirlitons without hoping that when I get to the pearly gates they are all there, doing their thing to greet me and raise my spirits on what would otherwise be a bit of a downer of a day. The Peter Wright production just seems naturally and effortlessly to do all the National and solo dances just right and the dancers looked in good form.

The opening night Sugar Plum was Nao Sakuma. On Christmas TV we saw Miyako Yoshida dancing the role with the Royal Ballet back in 2000 and Nao has much of that quality – a smile that says it’s all wonderful, effortless and gorgeous. I’d like it that she is at the pearly gates along with the Mirlitons please. I wouldn’t be so keen on having Cesar Morales (her Prince) along though. He is a wonderful dancer, technically he doesn’t do a thing wrong and his landings are so silent. But that’s all you get – no winning personality bursts out and one thing arenas need is larger-than-life personality.

 

So… dump the singer, dial up the orchestra, install some more video screens pointed at where people sit and I’d be happy. I think though I’d be happier seeing this production in a normal theatre still. But as presented it’s no bad night at all and I hope it draws some more people into those theatres. And it does prove a proscenium can be used if really needed. But better to choose pieces that don’t need it. A Swan Lake would go well here – English National Ballet take note.

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I attended the performance yesterday afternoon (29th December) and, overall, enjoyed the experience.

 

I started the afternoon in a block towards the back - the final one on the left hand side before you were fully facing the stage. It offered a fine and unrestricted view of the stage, albeit from a long distance away. Over the last 20 years I have only ever seen this production from the front row or no further than three rows back so it was nice to be able to admire the dancing patterns. I found the screen quite useful for watching closeups but didn't feel a huge need to watch it much.

 

I believe there were more snowflakes than usual but I didn't notice any other changes of the staging in the first act.

 

I had met a friend in the interval who told me that there was a seat free next to her, so I moved for act 2. She was in the first occupied block at the left hand side of the stage. We were much closer to the action and I didn't need to use binoculars or screen. It did mean, however, that we lost the entire left hand side and back of the set. This was fine for act 2 as most of the action took place on the additional thrust so we didn't lost any of the action. I think there may have been two additional flowers but no other real changes.

 

It was a fantastic performance. Oh how lucky BRB fans have been that Robert Parker dedicated his career to BRB. His Drosselmeyer yesterday filled the Arena with his gigantic stage presence and charisma. Likewise, James Barton filled the stage with his presence and personality as the Magician's assistant. Arancia Baselga was a delightful Clara, still able to enjoy dolls but gradually entering adult-hood. Yijing Zhang was beautiful and regal as the Snow Fairy.

 

Chi Cao was absolutely sparkling as the Prince. He made fantastic use of the stage (as did all the company) and his solo in the gpdd was magnificent. His Sugar Plum was the divine Ambra Vallo. Again, I felt that they both reached out into the huge auditorium. For me, the main positive of this venture was seeing how the whole company seemed to relish the size of the stage and make great use of the extra space.

 

My feelings about the experience are somewhat mixed. I enjoyed the performance from both my seats but I would not have liked to have seen act 1 from my second seat because you missed so much of the stage and would not have seen anything of the tree transformation. I can't see how anyone in the "stalls" could have seen anything much at all. There was no rake and the orchestra must have got in the way. However, if it has brought in some money and persuaded even a few people to go to a performance in a theatre then it has been worthwhile. I agree with Ian that the RAH is a better alternative venue. It would be interesting to see a production specifically designed for the Arena setting.

 

This was not BRB's first venture into an Arena as some years ago they showed (in successive years) Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham. I saw Swan Lake and believe that came over very well in the space used (although not the whole Arena was used).

 

One final word; I arrived later in the area than anticipated and managed to join my friend in Cafe Rouge. Admittedly she already had a table but the service was fantastic and I was able to enjoy a light lunch and still have plenty of time to get into the Arena and find my seat.

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I can't see how anyone in the "stalls" could have seen anything much at all. There was no rake and the orchestra must have got in the way.

 

Well, I managed, but then my experience of R&J earlier in the year may have helped: instead of going for the central block (with the seats all in columns one immediately behind another), I went for one of the side blocks, so that at least my view should have been diagonally between people's heads. I was lucky enough to get an aisle seat, too, which would have helped, except for the fact that, it being unraked, one little girl ahead of me was unable to see and kept leaning out into the aisle, and this had knock-on effects on the people behind her. But yes, I think if you'd been too close to the front you could have had problems, certainly with the conductor, and possibly with the larger instruments, too. The lack of a rake is an obvious problem, and you can of course rectify that by sitting much further back, although the presence of the camera rostrum means that many of the stepped seats behind it had to be removed from sale.

 

(BTW, I love your signature - I think it probably applies to me, too!)

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My sister and I saw 2 matinee performances at the O2 on 29th and 30th December. We have seen Nutcracker many times in Birmingham, but had never been to the O2 Arena and were interested to see how the production adapted to the Arena and how it was received by the audience.

The seats we had booked turned out to be behind the platform they had built for the cameras, and we were very quickly escorted to seats in Block 102, which although at the side of the stage gave us a pretty good view and although I have read in some reviews that the orchestra did not sound good, the sound was good from these particular seats.

Previous people have already commented about the Proscenium arch and the extended stage; I thought the dancers made full use of the extra space and we saw some wonderful and exciting jumps from some of them. ( Brandon Lawrence, William Bracewell and Carol-Anne Millar in particular) It was lovely to see the children brought forward as well and often positioned right at the front of the stage during the party.

We quite enjoyed Joe McElderry's songs ( 3 Christmas carols) although didn't quite understand why it had been decided that he should introduce the Ballet. Actually he didn't introduce it; that duty was beautifully mimed by the Magician's Assistant ( James Barton) and no help was needed from anyone else!

The large screen above the Stage was useful for seeing close-ups of dancers and I liked the way the camera showed close-ups of the box of toy soldiers and the Nutcracker doll; all helpful in telling the story. It was surprising how quickly you adapted to glancing at the screen and then back to the stage; although I suspect that people sitting further away would have been very reliant on the screen. Another good idea was when a summary of the story was projected on to the screen before each Act. We certainly heard parents reading this to their children.

We thought the Arena was about two thirds full for each of the matinees we attended. It was abit daunting to see people going to their seats with hot dogs, chips, beer etc. but actually the audience seemed fairly quiet with applause in appropriate places and certainly lots of cheering, whistles and afew Bravos at the end. We also heard lots of positive comments about the transformation scene during the Interval.

For us some of the magic of Nutcracker was lost by putting it in this huge space, but alot of it was still beautiful ( The snow scene particularly) and benefitted from the extra space. We went knowing it was not going to be like it is at the Hippodrome and we enjoyed it.

Well done to BRB for all the hard work it must have taken to put it on.

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