REVIEW by Willard Manus

Three things one can be sure of, death, taxes and the Nutcracker at Christmas - make that many Nutcrackers at Christmas. But in the Matthew Bourne version of the ballet be prepared for a surprise. Once again, as with Swan Lake, Cinderella and Car Man, he starts with the music and soars off to his own drumbeat and again we can never regard the ballet in quite the same way. So it is with his Nutcracker, which played recently at UCLA's Royce Hall.

Instead of a luxurious wealthy home, Bourne sets his story in a Dickensian orphanage where Christmas presents are handed out by the patrons only to be snatched away when they leave by the cruel Dr. and Matron Dross.

Clara's fantasies have therefore much more emotional punch, though when she imagines a nutcracker doll transformed into a flailing toy soldier all the children cower in fear. When this dybbuk-like creature does show them the way to escape the orphanage, he changes again, this time into the handsome hero. A particularly beautiful scene ends the first act when the boys and girls gleefully skate on a frozen pond, celebrating their freedom.

The second act visits Sweetieland where Bourne presents various dances with his usual wit and elegance by Marshmallows, Liquorice Allsorts and an especially sinuous Ice-Cream Cone. The dancing is lively and the choreography original, except perhaps by the lovers' pas de deux which is rather pedestrian. All ends well when Clara, back to reality in the orphanage, discovers her toy soldier is really a fellow orphan and the ballet ends with them fleeing together to their life.

Bourne first choreographed this work in 1992 and revised it a decade later. The dancing and music are wedded so closely one would think Tchaikovsky composed his music for Bourne rather than 110 years ago.

The excellent work by Etta Murfitt as Clara, Scott Ambler as the Nutcracker, Michela Meazza as Sugar, Neil Penlington as Fritz and all the orphans made Bourne's Nutcracker an important addition to the repertoire of the dance.

Bourne's latest work, Play Without Words" will play at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in April and May 2005.