Notenkraker & Muizenkoning

If you really want to indulge yourself during the holidays, a visit to Notenkraker & Muizenkoning (Nutcracker and Mouseking) by the Dutch National Ballet – seen 21 December at National Opera & Ballet – is usually a safe bet. It has Tchaikovsky’s music at its most whimsical and effervescent; the fabulous set pieces by Toer van Schayk, who also choreographed the piece together with Wayne Eagling, former artistic director of the National Ballet; and a wondrous fairy tale – based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann – about a prince who gets turned into a nutcracker by an evil mouse king.

Notenkraker & Muizenkoning has been a mainstay for the National Ballet, which has brought the ballet back every few years since its premiere in 1996. It is a fan favourite as well. At the opening night on 14 December, the ballet welcomed its 300.000th visitor (20 December was its 200th performance). This twelfth edition has completely sold out, making it the biggest crowd-puller of all time for the company. People who have missed out can already buy tickets for three more shows in December 2020.

Knowing all this, I am really grateful the company managed to procure me a seat at such short notice. Yet, sadly, tonight’s performance didn’t completely live up to my expectations (this is my third edition). Don’t get me wrong, the music – performed by het Balletorkest and Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor – is still wonderful, as are the sets by Van Schayk. For the first half Van Schayk created a Dickensian vision of the Amsterdam canals (the piece is set on St. Nicholas’ Eve, 1810) and the cheerful opulence of the Staalboom family home, where preteen Clara (Isa Vreeman) lives. In the second half we venture inside the magic lantern owned by the mysterious Drosselmeyer (Nicolas Rapaic, who also played the titular character in the latest edition of Don Quichot), a clockmaker, inventor and Clara’s Godfather, and watch the stage transform into a richly layered show-box.

Photos: Altın Kaftira

The first half is mostly set-up: the family gathers for the long-anticipated arrival of Saint Nicholas/Sinterklaas (Robin van Zutphen). Clara receives a nutcracker, the same nutcracker she just heard Drosselmeyer talk about. That night, when the clock strikes twelve, young Clara turns into grown-up Clara (soloist Yuanyuan Zhang) and the Nutcracker comes to life (performed by principal James Stout) seeking to break the spell of the Mouseking (Pascal Johnson) and turn back into a real prince (Jakob Feyferlik, principal at the Wiener Staatsballett) who looks remarkably like Drosselmeyer’s handsome nephew.

This first part usually chugs merrily along, bringing happiness and cheer wherever it goes. This time, however, it felt a bit lacklustre. The scenes inside the family home felt more messy than merry, the first showdown between the Mouseking and his mice and the Nutcracker and his toy soldiers could have done with more energy and focus. Thankfully, the first act mostly redeems itself with the dance of the snowflakes – choreographed by Wayne Eagling, based on the 1892 choreography by Lev Ivanov  – a beautifully performed choreography for twenty-four twirling snowflakes, led by Michaela DePrince and Salome Leverashvilli.

The second act fares decidedly better, even though the Mouseking is relinquished within the first ten minutes. The flower waltz and the grand pas de deux stand out (both by Eagling). The latter is a great showcase for guest dancer Feyferlik (who was also in attendance during the Dutch Ballet Gala, dancing with Igone de Jongh in Hans van Manen’s Trois Gnossiennes).

These fine performances cannot obscure the fact that Notenkraker & Muizenkoning has become decidedly more dated over the last few years. There is the loaded discussion about the depiction of Piet (Pete), Saint Nicholas’ handy helper. In this version, Piet still comes equipped with a whipping rod, but the blackface has been replaced with soot stripes. In an even more decided break with ‘tradition’, Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas, usually the whitest man in the room, now has the richer complexion of the two. 

It may however also be time to revisit and re-evaluate the exotic dances in the second half: the sultan (Nathan Brhane) with his harem, who has enslaved Clara’s brother Frits (Daniel Montero Real) in the Arab dance, the stereotypical Asian flavours of the twirling stick act in the Chinese dance. With some reconsideration, Notenkraker & Muizenkoning can hopefully stay a favourite holiday treat for many years to come.

Seen: December 21, 2019. Nederlandse Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam.

Choreography: Toer van Schayk, Wayne Eagling | dance: dancers Dutch National Ballet, Jakob Feyferlik ( principal at the Wiener Staatsballett) | music: Pjotr Iljitsj Tchaikovsky | musical performance: Balletorkest, Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor.