A truly entertaining production of “The Nutcracker” should leave you questioning whether the performance was just a dream. “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” a take on the holiday classic staged by the New National Theatre, Tokyo, in the run-up to Christmas, is no exception. Performed for the first time in 2017, Wayne Eagling’s choreography is danced with precision and imagination by a rotating cast in the principal roles.
From the moment the strings sweep in with the familiar refrain of “The Nutcracker Suite,” the audience is carried into a world of life-size dolls and dancing snowflakes. Pyotr Illych Tschaikovsky’s renowned score is played masterfully by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The curtain opens on a snowy and festive winter scene where dancers trade their slippers for skates and skillfully glide across the stage. A bright-eyed and confident young Clara (Riria Kobayashi) takes us through an inviting party scene where we get our first view of the Nutcracker, who later becomes the Prince, played by the mesmerizingly consistent Yudai Fukuoka.
As day turns to night, Naoji Kawaguchi’s sophisticated sets transport us into Clara’s dream. The show is immediately amplified by Ayako Ono, who takes over the role of Clara during the battle scene between the Prince and his rival, the Mouse King. Introduced with enthusiastic applause, Ono’s command of the stage makes it difficult for the Mouse King and his disciples to scare the audience. Later in the show, Ono transforms into the Sugar Plum Fairy, signifying that Clara has become the queen of her own dream. Apparently resilient to fatigue, Ono masters three different strenuous pas de deux throughout the show.
Unique to Eagling’s vision of “The Nutcracker” is the ambiguous ending of the battle scene. Rather than a clear victor, we are left with a feeling of chaos and recovery, with both mice and men taken hostage. The ambiguity allows for the Mouse King, performed energetically by Kosuke Okumura, to transcend the battle scene and become a recurring character in the second act. When Clara and the Prince get carried away in a hot-air balloon, the Mouse King straps himself to the bottom to join their adventure. Never causing too much trouble, it’s unclear if the Mouse King is the villain or just comic relief.
A magical snow scene provides the perfect setting for the company to show off its impressive corps de ballet. With synchronized footwork, the body of the ballet momentarily convinces you that the dancers are, indeed, falling snowflakes rather than skilled athletes. Eagling’s choreography creates a flurry before your eyes and leaves you wanting the blizzard to continue. The “Waltz of the Flowers” doesn’t provide quite the same satisfaction later in the ballet, however, as 12 couples attempt to navigate the crowded stage.
Act Two puts Kawaguchi’s picture-book sets for the Kingdom of Sweets front and center as floating chandelier-like fabric pods expand into elegant columns. It is also in Act Two where the New National Theatre shows off its soloists. Especially impressive was the Arabia dance piece, in which four men and one woman master complex choreography to create contorted formations.
Ono and Fukuoka dazzle the audience once more in the “Sugar Plum” pas de deux. For a piece that has the potential to lull viewers to sleep, the pair had the crowd on the edge of their seats. At times, it seems as if Ono could do the entire sequence on her own — an illusion made possible by Fukuoka’s skill as a partner.
From the enchanting sets to the world-class dancers, it’s easy to forget the effort that goes into this seamless ballet. Ono and Fukuoka in particular make the hard work that goes into their perfection look natural. At the end of the show, just as Clara wakes up on Christmas morning, I, too, was left wondering if it wasn’t all a beautiful dream.
“The Nutcracker and The Mouse King” runs through Dec. 22 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo. For more information, visit https://www.nntt.jac.go.jp/english/productions/ballet/nutcracker-2019.html