English Youth Ballet: Nutcracker and Ballet Etudes, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Since 1998, Janet Lewis’ English Youth Ballet (EYB) has been working with young dancers around England, giving children and young adults the opportunity to rehearse and perform alongside, and be trained by, professional ballet dancers. The result is an evening of ballet in which the stage is full of young hopefuls as they perform ensemble routines, interspersed with solos and pas de deux by professionals.

The EYB’s repertoire contains several full-length productions from the classical canon, and plans in 2018 to produce an original version of Cinderella set in 1950s Hollywood. For the company’s current run in Aylesbury, however, they present a largely narrative-free evening of dances, pairing routines from the second act of The Nutcracker with a series of routines set in a ballet studio to the music of Carl Czerney’s piano études.

In the first act, Amy Barker’s Clara, a character who is the cornerstone of Tchaikovsky’s full-length family favourite, is reduced to becoming an onstage spectator to the ballet’s celebration in the Land of Sweets. Adele Robbins’s Sugar Plum Fairy and Oliver Speers’s Nutcracker Prince help to set the scene, but for most of the first act of this performance it is the groups of children who dominate.

It is evident from these young people’s performances that there are some for whom classical ballet form comes naturally, and others who have to work harder. There are some delightful turns, from the young girls who perform the Chinese Tea Dance, to a fun hornpipe by the company’s small group of boy performers.

Perhaps the best of the amateur groups within the divertissements is the quartet of dancers performing the Flamenco-inspired Danse Espagnole. But having Robbins’ fairy or Samantha Cemejo’s Madame Bonbon does seem to elevate the children around them – and rightly so, for their poise and grace are rightly inspirational.

While concentrating on the Nutcracker’s divertissements robs us of the narrative elements of the classic, it does at least provide some of ballet’s best known and most beloved tunes. In the second act, dancers are accompanied by the much less well-known strains of an orchestral arrangement of piano studies by Carl Czerney.

Set within the ballet studio, the ensemble choreography includes lots of barre work. With costumes looking as they have been lifted straight from a Degas painting, the young performers again demonstrate their level of commitment, while the professionals impress with some crowd-pleasing set pieces, most notably Oliver Speers’ pirouetting.

But as the pieces run through a number of classic ballet poses, the dance class setting and lack of narrative structure make this second act much harder for those audience members who don’t have a family member onstage to connect with.

That is not to take anything away from English Youth Ballet’s purpose, which has inspired countless numbers of young people to enjoy ballet. Long may that continue.