Must-See Festive Dance Shows In London This Christmas

By Sam Smith Last edited 60 months ago

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Must-See Festive Dance Shows In London This Christmas

The festive season offers Londoners more opportunities than ever to enjoy dance, as absolute classics rub shoulders with ground-breaking works. This year there are also multiple productions of the two blockbusters The Nutcracker and Giselle.

Even better news: many shows are (surprisingly) cheaper than a pantomime. Here’s our round-up of the bravest and the best on offer. We’ll update these previews with reviews as our tireless team sees each show.

The Wilis in Act II of English National Ballet's Giselle © Patrick Baldwin


Giselle is generally regarded as the greatest romantic ballet ever written. This means that, unlike classical ballet where the dancers’ bearing tends to be proud and regal, the ballerinas’ movements need to be soft and otherworldly. In English National Ballet’s production, currently at the London Coliseum, Alina Cojocaru proves a master interpreter of the title role (casts vary over the run). The shape, sensitivity, expression and detail that she brings to every movement ensure that she entirely fulfills the need to make it look ‘as if morning dew is dripping from the fingertips’. The scene in which she dies after realising that her love for the high ranking Albrecht can never be is deeply moving as her sorrow and fragility feel extremely genuine.

The production is Mary Skeaping’s classic, which began life in 1971 and is so perfectly measured that it can be almost painfully beautiful. Autumnal colours dominate in Act I, but in Act II it is whites and mystical greens that generate atmosphere for the moonlit forest. There are scenes of swirling intensity as the Wilis (spirits of women who were wronged in life) wreak their vengeance from beyond the grave, but certain moments of stillness and silence can prove to be some of the most moving of the evening.

Several performers are making role debuts including Isaac Hernández who brings an appropriate sense of grandeur to the part of Albrecht, Duke of Silesia, and Fernando Bufalá who helps us to feel for the humble Hilarion, arguably the most wronged character in the entire affair. Rina Kanehara and Cesar Coralles dance a fantastic peasant pas de deux while Laurretta Summerscales is a brilliant Queen of the Wilis. The elegance of her movement combines with the obvious strength in her technique to reveal a character who can be as commanding, and indeed frightening, as she is undoubtedly alluring. SS

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Akram Khan’s new take on the ballet which is thrillingly, dramatically different, as if set in some mechanistic Russian factory (designs are by Tim Yip who was responsible for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Its initial run at Sadler’s Wells has now ended, but tickets are already on sale for another there in September.

Giselle (English National Ballet): London Coliseum, 11-22 January. Tickets: £14-£79. Up to two children (under 16) can attend half price for every full paying adult.

Akram Khan’s Giselle: Sadler’s Wells, 20-23 September. Tickets: £12-£55.

Vadim Muntagirov as Prince Florimund and Sarah Lamb as Princess Aurora. The Royal Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty joins several Nutcrackers to make this a Merry Tchaikovsky Christmas © Bill Cooper
Vadim Muntagirov as Prince Florimund and Sarah Lamb as Princess Aurora. The Royal Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty joins several Nutcrackers to make this a Merry Tchaikovsky Christmas © Bill Cooper

The Royal Ballet and English National Ballet

There are several options for The Nutcracker but the first to open is the Royal Ballet version, choreographed by Sir Peter Wright in 1984 and still going strong. The sumptuousness of Julia Trevelyan Oman’s sets paint the perfect picture of a traditional nineteenth century Christmas party, but the wealth of details to be found amidst the human activity makes the scene feel warm and magical rather than cold and distant.

Casts vary over the run, but on opening night Alexander Campbell excelled as Hans-Peter and The Nutcracker, while Francesca Hayward was magnificent as Clara, revealing an elegant suppleness that made her journeys through the air brim with fluidity. The litheness of her and Campbell’s dancing lifted the normally lovely scene in The Land of Snow to another level again. Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson were models of excellence as The Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy with their clean yet expressive movements.

The plot of The Nutcracker more or less stops at the interval, but the emotional interest that the choreography and these performances invested in the characters ensured that we remained hooked throughout the wonderful dancing and music of Act Two. Sir Peter is 90 this year and has celebrated the occasion by re-choreographing the ballet’s Chinese Dance, creating the new version for Marcelino Sambé and Luca Acri who execute it extremely well. Although many performances are already sold out, tickets are more plentiful for some of the later ones. SS

The Royal Ballet is also offering another Tchaikovsky work in the form of The Sleeping Beauty, with 2016 marking the 70th anniversary of the landmark version danced by the company, developed from Marius Petipa’s original choreography. Like The Nutcracker the piece enables some incredible dancing to be presented in a variety of styles, and the standard on offer is mind-bogglingly high. Opening night saw Sarah Lamb play Princess Aurora and she proved exceptional as the attention to detail she showed in creating her shapes made her clean, expressive movements seem possessed of an infinite lightness. Her technique came to the fore in the famous Rose Adagio, in which the dancer must maintain either stationary or rotating en pointe poses with minimal or no support, and in the routine in which she needs to appear to have been suddenly overcome by an enchanted sleep.

Vadim Muntagirov was equally incredible as Prince Florimund with a style that perfectly complemented Lamb’s own as he applied a delicacy and litheness to his very strong and physical movements. Their Act III Grand Pas de Deux stood out as something special, but only headed an act that featured top quality dancing across the board. Hayward and Campbell repeated the magic they had created in The Nutcracker as Princess Florine and The Bluebird, while in Act I the performances of the six Fairies left one thinking that half of these dancers could be playing Princess Aurora – and indeed they are in other performances over the run! The ballet continues until next March (although there is a break for most of January) while the performance on 28 February 2017, with Marienela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov in the lead roles, will be broadcast live to various cinemas across the UK and worldwide. SS

Issac 'Turbo' Baptiste takes the title role in ZooNation's The Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

The Royal Ballet’s third seasonal offering is neither by Tchaikovsky, nor in fact at the Royal Opera House. In association with dance company ZooNation and the Roundhouse, it is staging The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a hip hop dance piece that now appears in an ‘expanded’ form at the unique venue in Chalk Farm, having begun life two years ago. It is a lively, intelligent, thought provoking and yet ultimately joyous affair that will thrill children with its colour (although the very young may not understand it all) and keep adults gripped with its social commentary. Director and writer Kate Prince feels that the language Lewis Carroll uses to describe characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is extremely distasteful by modern standards, particularly when it relates to mental health. The first half thus explores the ‘madness’ experienced by a series of characters such as Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, the White Rabbit and Alice, and attributes it in each instance to such things as childhood trauma, just as modern day psychoanalysis might. The second half, however, turns everything on its head as it celebrates all of us as individuals, and eschews the idea that ‘normality’ is something any of us should ever aspire to achieve. The dancing is exceptionally inventive, and it is possible that even those who would not usually look beyond classical ballet for an evening out will find that they are won over simply by its sheer quality. Ultimately, however, this piece is fun, and it is perfectly suited to chasing away those January blues. SS

Wayne Eagling’s production of The Nutcracker for English National Ballet premiered in 2010, but has already established itself as a firm favourite as it effortlessly combines tradition with innovation. If you’re seeking a traditional staging it will certainly fit the bill, but it finds its own original ways of introducing additional drama to the proceedings. The two characters of the Nutcracker and the Nephew (who are, in fact, one and the same person) are delineated by having them played by different dancers. In addition, the Mouse King takes far longer to be defeated, which not only propels the narrative further into Act Two, but means that the scene in The Land of Snow juxtaposes dancing snowflakes with battling mice! The choreography feels clean and sharp as the dancers in Act Two’s Suite have plenty of scope to shine, but there are also playful elements as demonstrated in the battle between the mice and toy soldiers.

Once again casts vary, but we saw Alina Cojocaru who was brilliant as Clara. The shape and expression she brought to her movements, as if the music’s rhythms pulsated through her limbs, were so exceptional that it almost became easy to forget just how quick and sharp her turns actually were. Cesar Corrales was also excellent as the Nephew, demonstrating both muscularity and litheness in his movements through the air. Their pas de deux was incredible as the tension in their poses and the trust they placed in each other were clear for all to see. Laurretta Summerscales also stood out in the Dance of the Mirlitons, while Sophia Mucha from the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts was staggeringly good as the Young Clara. Needless to say, early booking is advisable. SS

On the more alternative side, the one-hour spectacle The Nutcracker on Ice featuring the Imperial Ice Stars moves its base from the Royal Albert Hall to Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland in celebration of the festival's 10th anniversary.

The Nutcracker (Royal Ballet): Royal Opera House, until 12 January. Tickets: £5-£120.

The Nutcracker (English National Ballet): London Coliseum, 14 December-7 January. Tickets: £14-£79. Up to two children (under 16) can attend half price for every full paying adult.

The Nutcracker on Ice (Winter Palace Theatre at Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park): 18 November-2 January. Tickets: £16-£21.

The Sleeping Beauty (Royal Ballet): Royal Opera House, 21 December-14 March. Tickets: £5-130.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party: Roundhouse, 30 December-22 January. Tickets: £15-£30. Child discount of 25% available for children aged 15 and under. Family discount available of £30 off four full price tickets for parties of two adults and two children, or one adult and three children.

Matthew Bourne-buster

The Red Shoes

Sadler’s Wells’ Christmas season usually includes a work by Matthew Bourne, dubbed Britain’s most popular choreographer, and this year it features his new creation, The Red Shoes. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s iconic 1948 film, upon which it is based, is a tale of love, obsession and destiny involving the ballerina Victoria Page, composer Julian Craster and ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. It features an 18 minute ballet, itself based on the fairy tale The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen, so it stands to reason that this dance piece, which is based on a film about a ballet based on a fairy tale is going to be multi-layered. It is fascinating to see how Bourne employs quite different means to tell the same story as the movie because he is working with a non-verbal medium. For example, in the film the point is that Victoria does not initially dance for Lermontov, but the requisite dynamics are revealed here by seeing her do so. Bourne reveals his trademark ability to write in story and detail at every turn, and the fact that the subject matter enables sequences to be included that are based on everything from ballet classics such as Les Sylphides to music hall means there is much variation across the evening. However, it is not necessary to have seen the film or even a single ballet to get a lot out of the experience.

The choreography is also set up so that it can reveal strong and intense emotions, while the ballet The Red Shoes itself is rendered effectively on an Expressionistic set in which light, shadow and silhouette all play a part. The film includes certain effects such as people disintegrating into newspaper which could never be reproduced live, but there is compensation as the sight of dangling red shoes highlights the sense of obsession. The evening is danced exceptionally well with Ashley Shaw standing out as Victoria (casts vary over the run). The score, which draws on the music of Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann, as well as Frédéric Chopin’s ballet music and other music from Terry Davies, is also excellent. One can even sense the sound of an approaching train in the score from an early point, handing a certain sense of inevitability to what we then see unfold before us. SS

The Red Shoes: Sadler's Wells, 6 December-29 January. Tickets: £12-£68. A family ticket is available comprising four £58 seats for £185, to include at least one child. Following its run at Sadler’s Wells, The Red Shoes will tour to different venues across the United Kingdom (31 January-17 June).

Magnificent obsessions

Up & Down

This week the Eifman Ballet of St Petersburg returns to the London Coliseum for the UK premiere of artistic director Boris Eifman’s Up and Down. The ballet, which is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender is the Night, follows the rise and fall of promising young psychoanalyst Dick Diver as he falls in love with his patient Nicole. As their relationship evolves they experience insecurity and schizophrenia as well as hedonistic joy before Nicole walks away with Tommy, leaving Dick a broken man. The subject matter provides plenty of opportunities to present innovative movements that highlight people’s disturbed states of mind, and to demonstrate different styles as the characters’ wild abandon manifests itself through mass Jazz Age dances. The focus on ensuring variation, however, actually makes the alterations in mood feel arbitrary, thus stifling our ability to connect with the emotional and psychological journeys of the protagonists. Nevertheless, the performances of Oleg Gabyshev as Dick, Lyubov Andreyeva as Nicole and Maria Abashova as the ‘femme fatale’ Rosemary are persuasive (two casts perform over the run), while the ensemble members prove to be excellent all-rounders. The combination of music from such diverse composers as George Gershwin, Franz Schubert and Alban Berg also works well, although the piece is danced to a recording rather than a live orchestra. If you’re looking for an alternative to family friendly festive treats such as The Nutcracker, Up and Down could be just the ticket. SS

Up & Down: London Coliseum, 6-10 December. Tickets: £10-£85.

Up & Down at the London Coliseum © Evgeny Matveev
Up & Down at the London Coliseum © Evgeny Matveev

London Contemporary Dance School presents Collaborations 2016

Unique pairings is the focus of this three-part dance series taking part at London's esteemed modern dance centre The Place. This student showcase pits London Contemporary Dance students with other apprentices across creative platforms in music, moving image and design. From wildly diverse electronic scores to off-the-wall spatial arrangements, expect work that challenges both the artists and the audience.

1 & 2 December Collaborations/Dance and Music (Guildhall School of Music & Drama/The Place. Tickets: £10 (£7 concessions) 60 mins, 7.30pm

5 December Collaborations/Dance and Moving Image (Central St Martins)/The Place. Tickets: £10 (£7 concessions) 60 mins, 7.30pm

7 & 8 December Collaborations/Dance and Design (Wimbledon College of Art and Design)/The Place. Tickets: £10 (£7 concessions) 60 mins, 7.30pm

And still more

Variety's the Spice of Life

With so much on offer be sure to check out London's full dance listings. There are, however, a few other pieces that stand out for us.

Family fave The Snowman appears at the Peacock Theatre as it has done every year since 1997, and Hans Christian Andersen's classic story The Little Match Girl returns to the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells, with celebrated choreographer Arthur Pita again at the dancing helm.

We like the look of the National Ballet of China's The Peony Pavilion, as one of the most enduring love stories in Chinese literature redrawn into an enchanting two-act fusion ballet that combines Western classical ballet with conventional Far Eastern influences.

The Snowman: pretty Christmassy, right?

'Strictly' fans and lovers of tango should get down to the Phoenix Theatre where The Last Tango, starring Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace, is into its final weeks. We may know them best as 'those dancers off the telly', but they are World Dance title holders and Argentine Tango Champions. With the show including such classics as Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, When I Fall In Love and Blue Skies — all played by a live band — we'll be surprised if after the performance you don't find yourself clamping a rose in your teeth and tango-ing to Holborn tube.

The Last Tango: Phoenix Theatre, until 3 December. Tickets: £12.50-£99.

The Snowman: Peacock Theatre, until 1 January. Tickets: £15-£36. A family ticket is available comprising four tickets for £115, to include at least one under 16.

National Ballet of China: The Peony Pavilion: Sadler's Wells, 29 November-3 December. Tickets: £12-£45.

The Little Match Girl: Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells, 10-30 December. Tickets: £12-£18  

By Sam Smith and Tiffany Pritchard.

Last Updated 12 January 2017