I've never been to the ballet, so I'm going all-in - to the Royal Ballet Nutcracker

Herr Drosselmeyer (Gary Avis) (Tristram Kenton)

As the dark winter nights truly draw in, there’s no better way to illuminate them than with spotlights and theatrical magic. And what production has more of that than Tchaikovsky’s lush ballet The Nutcracker? It’s the ultimate way to lift your Christmas spirits – so this year, I resolved to finally, for the first time, get myself to the sold-out opening night of Peter Wright’s lavish production at the Royal Opera House.

How have I gone nearly 23 years without ever visiting the ballet in person? Perhaps I thought watching Barbie in the Nutcracker as a child was as much of the classic as I needed to know. Or maybe I feared disappointment because I didn’t trust all the five-star reviews. But really there’s no good excuse.

The tale, based on a story by E.T.A Hoffmann, follows a young girl, Clara (danced on opening night by Anna Rose O’Sullivan), on Christmas Eve receiving gifts from toymaker Herr Drosselmeyer (Gary Avis), who uses magic to weave the girl a festive adventure once her family has gone to bed, in the company of a handsome Nutcracker (Joseph Sissens).

The sound of harmonic strings rises from the orchestral pit below us. Following the excited tutu-clad children running to peek over the balcony into the orchestra pit, I catch a smile from the harpist (remember her later). There are plenty of children as expected – both students from the Royal Ballet school onstage and those in the audience, enraptured by Clara’s flitting, fleeting steps. The anticipation is palpable as families filling the red velvet seats of the auditorium wait for the moment the toymaker appears.

Syraat’s first Royal Opera House selfie (Syraat Al Mustaqeem)

Now, I’m the type of person who likes to do her research but I also want to maintain an authentic first-time experience, so speaking with Rachel Hollings, the Opera House’s artistic administrator, before the show, we skip over the spoilers. I do ask her what to wear though, and she tells me that “sequins are optional”.

Reminiscing about her early visits to the ballet, Hollings tells me, “It’s a powerful, even spiritual experience – a communion of sorts between audience and performer. I loved to listen to the music at home first which enhanced the live experience. When I went to the theatre for the first time, my mother said I cried and couldn’t be taken away.”

The moment as the curtains part is exhilarating and impossible to take in all at once. I’m distracted by details – Wright’s production is famously lavish – so once my eyes refocus on the action the entire stage has shifted. The dancers playing the toys move between stiffness and fluidity, miming animated emotions. As some of them end their moments in the spotlight with their chests rising and falling, I am reminded that they are in fact athletes. The hours of practice are evident in effortlessness of the sequences but occasionally I’m worried the dancers might miss their steps. Astonishingly they don’t.

I have little time, however, to think of the sport – I’m utterly absorbed, my eyes chasing Clara as she navigates her fantasy. From Drosselmeyer’s sweeping cape to the frills on Clara’s sleeves that settle in slow-motion, I’m obsessed with the costumes. Every time I spot his cloak I feel as if the toymaker is personally narrating his story to me.

The corps de ballet (Tristram Kenton)

And the Christmas tree transformation cannot be ignored. As Clara slips into her dream (or is it?) the tree miraculously grows at the back of the vast stage as she runs to the front, a tiny figure against the impressive evergreen inviting us into the world of toys and setting the stage for the celebrated battle between the toy soldiers, the Nutcracker and Clara with the Mouse King and his men, their beady mouse eyes flashing red, before Clara saves the Nutcracker’s life by walloping the Mouse King with her slipper – and releasing the toymaker’s nephew Hans Peter from his enchantment inside the Nutcracker.

Suddenly Hans Peter and Clara are left alone. By the time the single teal curtain falls to set the scene for their moment I am rooting for them to fall in love.

The stage, now a glittery, icy spectacle in Act 2, is set for a show within a show. A young girl behind me whispers to her grandfather, “What’s happening now?” and I want to explain that the toys have come back to life so she can share my excitement. With the percussion section showcasing flamenco, Arabian beats and Russian influence, this half is even more thrilling than the first.

The moment I am on the lookout for is the pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy (Marianela Nuñez) and her prince (Vadim Muntagirov) – and he truly is hers. The dance duet, however brilliant at showing the romance between the two, is really all about the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tchaikovsky’s musical refrain (the harpist returns!) for the pas de deux, written for his late sister, rises and falls with every lift and step. Nuñez’s solo is mesmerising and as I recognise this much-repeated melody I suddenly resent every movie soundtrack and Christmas advert that has used it – it belongs to this charming pair alone.

Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez (Alastair Muir)

Eventually, Clara’s reverie comes to an end and the audience is left wondering if the entire affair was a dream – until Hans Peter arrives at her doorstep, a young red-clad soldier asking for directions to his Uncle’s house. There is a moment of recognition before the pair go their separate ways. The true reunion follows when Hans Peter returns to his Herr Drosselmeyer’s home and the night ends – too soon for my liking.

As I contemplate buying tickets to another showing of the production Hollings encourages my return. I expect to see many returning audience members too, as the ever-changing cast take their opportunity to play the iconic characters. No performance will be the same.

There’s no doubt I’ll be back, but I just hope my second time will be as magical as my first. Though I’ve never seen myself as a person who attends the ballet, I realise that part of Clara’s fantasy is about transformation and being lost in the excitement – which you don’t know until you go.

The Nutcracker is at the Royal Opera House until January 8, roh.org.uk

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