Jodie McKnight is the fans’ delight at Vienna Festival Ballet. Her lead Nutcracker character, Clara, was a constantly heartwarming and memory-stirring portrayal of a nearly-grown girl in the dream created for her by the mysterious fairy godfather in classical ballet, her Uncle Drosselmeyer.
She’s in wonder, surprise, awe, and excitement at the happenings all around her, still young, yet she asserts herself on events, for example in Act 1 as she saves the Nutcracker Doll’s life amid a raging battle between mice and toy soldiers, and in Act 2 when transported by Drosselmeyer to the Land of Sweets she looks for chances to join in the national dances.
There’s no need to suspend belief that McKnight’s playing a girl, say 15 years younger than herself. Her passion and commitment to the role is thrillingly obvious.
McKnight is a typical talent treasure of this the consistently best of the ballet companies who tour England – in their case twice annually, which is double any rival. In the spring here, she stole the show as a superbly funny Ugly Sister in Cinderella. And in between the three seasons she has danced Clara for VFB, she had a season with Northern Ballet after winning their audition for the lead role in their The Ugly Duckling. A Londoner, she had previously been with Central ballet.
Having a character dancer of her quality, her accomplishment already, and still her promise, is a luxury rarely found in competing companies we see here in Worthing.
Drosselmeyer, after he’d orchestrated Clara’s experience of saving a Nutcracker Soldier Doll, finding a Prince in his place and sharing with him probably the first pas de deux of her life, sealed this ballet’s magical Act 1 by pulling across the backcloth for the concluding Waltz of the Snow Flakes.
Here came the VFB’s second coupling of principals with Michaela Griffin partnered by Luca Varone as the Snow Queen and Prince. In Act 2 came VFB’s most slender of lissom fairies, Emily-Joy Smith, as The Sugar Plum Fairy with her Cavalier, Miguel Piqer, VFB’s Spaniard back from a spell with English National Opera. And a third pairing came in Perdita-Jayne Lancaster (striking last time here VFBas the Cat in Cinderella) and Marcos Uso during the Waltz of The Flowers. To have three couples delivering this well is another massive VFB plus.
Despite the narrowness of the figure she cuts, Smith takes subtly and deceptively gentle command of the stage in her roles such as this one and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. In the variations of their climactic pas de deux of Act 2, Piqer showed again his fleet and velvety light foot-touch, and his assured double spins. He and Smith are actually an item.
The company’s strength among their girls is intact and with double the number of boys present on their last visit, they made the most of the ensemble choreography. Costumes were again a pleasure, not least the scarlet of the flamenco-inspired Spanish girls, the irridescent blue-green of the Chinese Dance, the pale silken court-slave attire of the Arabians.
The Arabian dance was the riveting exotic experience you long for in this immortal Nutcracker number and with a strong Indian influence, creating many classical temple images, tableaux and shapes.
Full chorographic marks here, and artistic ones to the one princess, Nahia Gil, and her three male slaves, Andrew Cook, Uso and Varone. Cook then became a Cossack to up the tempo and frisson with his solo Trepak and the audience went enthusiastically with him.
But for the unsuitably loud music, The Arabian would have swept away the top prize in this Divertissement but went instead to VFB’s own Nutcracker trademark, the Harlequin. It’s normally two boys but this time only one. In red and white halved and spotted one-piece baggy pyjamas with a mop of hair, the clowning, cheeky Luca Varone brought out in McKnight’s Clara yet more personality interest in a fun creation that had both of them messing about and charming each other in perfect harmony.
Next season, it’s 35 years of Vienna Festival Ballet, a remarkable achievement of gutsy staying power despite having to self-fund, by 70s international star Peter Mallek of Vienna and Gill Mallek of Scotland. They will celebrate this new milestone with a Gala Tour next Spring.
That should be a real treat with a difference, and Worthing need to come out in force next year to salute VFB for the quality and consistency of popular classical ballet performance they have bestowed upon this town over all these years.