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A Nutcracker-themed teashop in Tokyo. Don't ask me why.
A Nutcracker-themed teashop in Tokyo. Don't ask me why.

When Ivan Nagy took over ENB after Peter Schaufuss went to Berlin, we had another year of Peter’s Nutcracker to contend with until Ben Stevenson’s came in the following year. It was an eccentric production, with interruptions to the score in the first Act where Drosselmeyer suddenly mimes two interpolated piano solos (the real pianist was in the wings), and music for some kind of funeral march of mice on a battlefield. There was all kinds of psychological drama written into the libretto, and loads of names to contend with.

At the beginning of that season, we had a lot of new foreign artists who didn’t speak much English. Given the complexities of the plot, this led to some memorable confusion, such as the time the ballet mistress had to explain ‘this person is your first cousin, but turns out to be someone else in Act II, and that’s Tchaikovsky’s nephew, but he reappears again in a dream sequence as someone else, and that’s Bob, and that’s Aunt Olga who represents Death’  (I’m making this up, because I can’t remember a single aspect of the story, except that it was that complex).

The target of this explanation was three places removed – in other words, she explained this to a Cuban who translated it into Spanish, to a Russian-speaking Pole who spoke enough Spanish to translate it onward into Russian to the visiting artist. Or it might have been the other way around. I don’t think anyone understood their bit of the plot,  and no-one was in a position to know who  had understood what. If you were in the audience and didn’t know what was going on,  you might be relieved to know that half the cast didn’t either.

Ivan sat patiently by watching all this going on, and I think that he probably wished the production would just go away. In another  rehearsal, there was a huge argument about whether the King Rat should do something on the right leg or the left (or something like that).  Not knowing the show, Ivan was powerless in every respect – powerless to offer any expert advice, and powerless to do a different show, and powerless to change the choreography because – unfortunately, you might say – the entire ballet had been meticulously notated in Benesh, and Mark Kay, resident notator, sat in the corner of every rehearsal with his black ringbinder of notation like a traffic warden with a rule book. Being powerless to act, Ivan also remained largely taciturn.

When the King Rat incident had escalated to the point where it had to be resolved before a fight ensued, Ivan turned wearily to the notator for clarification. In an exotic mixture of broad Hungarian accent and comic you-rang-my-lord? intonation, he asked

‘Peter Schaufuss’ secretary?’

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist