'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...'

Actually, a certain Colonel and his family have got more than one mouse in their house – and once their party guests have gone, and the midnight hour has ushered in some dream–time magic, those mice will be coming out fighting. Lining up against the Toy Soldiers they will go over the top in support of King Rat. It’s a very merry, mischievous episode – an adorable element in the late Peter Darrell’s Nutcracker which Scottish Ballet are again reviving. It opens at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre tonight – the subsequent tour gets under way at the start of 2018.

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December finds ballet companies all across the globe busily rehearsing their Snowflakes and Sugar Plums, but very few – if any – allow children to make more than a token appearance in the Act One party scene. Darrell – Scottish Ballet’s founder–choreographer – puts children at the very heart of the ballet. Their involvement in the dance makes that Christmas party feel like a proper family occasion – true, the period costumes set it in Victorian times, but impish little lads and young misses admiring each other’s frocks are as evergreen as holly and mistletoe.

Moreover, the role of Clara – whose fantasy adventures take us to the mouthwatering Land of Sweets – is also performed by a little girl, and not an adult ballerina. What difference does that make? It means there’s no whisper of sexual attraction in Clara’s attachment to the Nutcracker Prince: instead, we’re drawn into that wonderful, wishful-thinking childhood state where toys come alive, conjurers really can do transforming magic and there’s a whole fairytale realm just lurking behind the Christmas tree ... It adds up to two acts of blissful, captivating escapism that flies by on the lush cadences of Tchaikovksy’s score.

But before the curtain goes up on the Colonel’s elegant home – sumptuously swagged and furbished by designer Lez Brotherston – those wee mice have to go into training. Maria Jiminez, Scottish Ballet’s artistic co-ordinator, has been teaching the groups who will be stepping out in the weeks ahead. These new recruits have a demanding learning curve ahead of them.

“They don’t just put on pretty party costumes,” she laughs. “There is a lot of proper choreography for them to do in Act One: they have to join in with the adults – our professional dancers – as well as having their own special sections where the little girls are very well-behaved, the little boys not so much! They run around, being noisy. But everything has always to be with the music. And everyone has to be in the right place at the right time, always – because there is so much happening in this party scene.

"Of course, our dancers are watching to make sure no-one gets lost, but it is still a big responsibility for children who are only ten, or eleven years old. And then, some of them have to be mice as well. With big furry masks covering their heads and long tails...”

There is a lovely twinkle in her eyes as she says this. Ever since the children saw these costume additions, they’ve been itching to wear them, she says. But, as any dancer knows, props can prove tricky when you have to move around a stage as well. Full run-through rehearsals have now become the order of the day, and it’s time for the mice to get into costume and character. Jimenez hovers on the studio sidelines, making mental notes as small figures build defensive barricades of ginormous sweets and wodges of cheese, then – long, velveteen tails cracking like whips – the mice squad goes on the attack! It’s the first time the group have worn the heads and tails. Jimenez is full of praise. No-one tripped over a tail, no-one went the wrong way, even though the mouse heads give limited visibility.

“They are actually quite heavy on the head,” says Jimenez. “And they do get hot – but our little mice are very determined. They have been coming in after school, and at weekends, learning all the steps, doing them over and over – they are so very, very keen. Are they tomorrow’s ballet stars in the making? Who knows?”

In fact, a young Christopher Harrison once played Fritz the naughty little brother in Darrell’s Nutcracker. He’s now a principal dancer with Scottish Ballet and a Nutcracker Prince in the current revival. Meanwhile, watching the mice shenanigans, is ten-year-old Robbie Scott from Edinburgh who has been cast as Fritz alongside the Clara of 12-year-old Ailish Ogilvie from Falkirk. Robbie cheerfully admits he’s been typecast as the boisterous, unruly brother – Ailish diplomatically says “well, maybe, yes – just a bit!” before adding that “Clara is a total goody-two-shoes who is the family favourite and gets all the really nice things, so no wonder Fritz gets jealous.”

Where there’s no difference between them, however, is in their shared love of dance. “I’d gone to classes from when I was quite little,” says Robbie, “but as soon as I tried ballet – I just knew. I loved the movements, and being given a chance to be in Nutcracker is amazing.” Ailish is nodding in agreement. She’s still not sure if dancing is her one true career choice but being Clara, who is onstage for almost all of the show, is beyond special. “I get to dance with the Prince,” she says. “And there are lots of lifts, where I’m looking out at everyone dancing round us... it’s wonderful.”

Both Robbie and Ailish will perform in Edinburgh, then in Glasgow and in Newcastle – other teams of children will take over when Nutcracker tours to Aberdeen and Inverness.

Company manager Amy Dolan is the behind the scenes wizard who handles all the official protocols that allow these young casts to perform onstage with the professional dancers. “It is strictly regulated,” she says, “and rightly so. You have make sure that schools are willing to release children – although we try to keep disruptions to a minimum – and you do have to make sure, with a doctor’s certificate, that each child is healthy and fit to perform. I then send off the letters, the forms, passport photos and birth certificates, to the relevant local authorities – and hopefully, the children’s licences to perform are okayed, and we can start detailed planning. We bring in experienced chaperones to look after the children backstage – it can be a very daunting time for many children. Even if they’ve been calm in rehearsals, they can get very nervous about going onstage – usually because they don’t want to let any of the dancers down, or cause them problems. We’ve also had to book hotels in Newcastle for the children – and that’s a first. We usually bring in local children if we need them – ones who fit into the costumes! But Nutcracker is a dance-heavy production for our youngsters, so we decided it was better to have groups who really knew the piece well, and totally look after them on tour. It also means they get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a professional dancer, going on the road – which makes it all even more exciting for them.”

The mice have finished their rehearsal, as has the Snow Queen (principal Sophie Martin) and her swirling Snowflakes. Watching every moment, noticing the nuances of every move is the company’s artistic director, Christopher Hampson. This revival of Darrell’s Nutcracker – first staged by Scottish Ballet in 2014 – feels particularly appropriate: this month is the 30th anniversary of his death. “What’s really lovely,” says Hampson, “is that we’ve done it before, so many of our dancers are saying to the newbies in the company ‘this is what you do..” and showing them how to handle the props, or manage the tricky bits of choreography. I feel we own it now. And actually, as a company, I feel everything has really landed – come together for us – as a company now.”

He’s referring to the past 12 months of substantial successes. Accolades on the American tour, two UK Awards for Achievement in Dance and for the groundbreaking Digital Season, and – something Darrell would have cherished – the company’s first ever performances at London’s Royal Opera House with a rare revival of MacMillan’s 1960 ballet, The Fairy’s Kiss. “We’re coming out of this year, and going forward to our 50th anniversary [in 2019] really knowing what we’re capable of – connecting more and more with communities all across Scotland, representing Scotland internationally, and hopefully fulfilling all that Peter Darrell had in mind for us.”

The cheeky mice would definitely nod their heads at that.

Scottish Ballet’s Nutcracker opens at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre tonight and runs there until December 30. See www.scottishballet.co.uk