It’s 25 years since Graeme Murphy’s inventive reimagining of The Nutcracker for The Australian Ballet premiered in Melbourne and, after Friday night’s opening for its fourth revival, it’s sure to captivate a new audience with its plethora of evocative scenes, comic Aussie touches and in bringing substance to the fascinating background story of ballet in Australia.
Retold as Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, Tchaikovsky’s glorious score remains intact, transposed convincingly on a reverse telling of Clara’s life – an ageing Russian ballet dancer who had danced around the world for the Ballets Russes before settling in Melbourne. For all its entrenched European foundations, the work is transformed with a moving and close-at-hand relevance that speaks of our resilient and deeply affected immigrants.
It’s 1950s suburban Australia, a Hills Hoist in the grassed backyard where the footy is kicked and far from the tumultuous revolutionary past that Clara had fled. From Clara’s humble post-war home where she entertains her gregarious veteran ballet friends with vodka, cake and entertaining dance, to the battlefields where her soldier-lover is shot, from the ballet school to the world stages, imperial balls and her arrival amongst the happy-go-lucky Aussie sailors, Kristian Fredrikson’s stylish set and costume designs serve the story wondrously without overpowering the clarity of characterisation.
Much use is made of projected black and white film footage that races across a scrim and, while adding energetic fire and adrenaline on the one hand, at times it camouflages the dance on the other – especially frustrating as Bolshevik Rats scurry and attack in battle in near darkness. Nonetheless, Murphy and Fredrikson’s concept shines through powerfully.
Precision wasn’t always achieved in the cleverly structured and dynamic formations, but what stands out in Murphy’s eclectic choreographic hand is the lean towards sensitivity, boldness and beauty in the portrayal of individuals, pairs and ensembles, over gratuitous showy athleticism. In this, the dancers delivered amply.
Ai-Gul Gaisina, who joined The Australian Ballet in 1973, dances Clara the elder with inviting gestural tenderness before she falls unwell and exhausted, taken over in her dream by the effortlessly graceful Leanne Stoymenov as the passionate and headstrong, career-building Clara. Stoymenov’s magnetic presence, expressed heart and fluid technique come in one binding force that brings Clara’s past to riveting life, all the while sharing the limelight generously. Among her highlights are two beautiful pas de deux – one full of romantic fortitude with the impressive Kevin Jackson as her dashing Beloved Officer, the other in accomplished grandeur alongside the equally imposing Jarryd Madden as the handsome ‘Nutcracker’ Prince.
Jessica Stratton-Smith deserves much credit too for her sparkling performance as the young Clara and who features in one of the most delightful scenes – at the ballet school of St Petersburg’s Imperial Conservatoire amongst a budding group of dedicated youngins before a clever transformation via the studio mirrors takes her to adulthood.
There were moments when I thought that Murphy could have got away with anything because Tchaikovsky draws you into his intoxicating rhythms and melodies so easily. Orchestra Victoria showed expert musicianship and stamina in the pit. At their lead, conductor Nicolette Fraillon seemed to interpret the score with overly tender-heartedness that occasionally failed to materialise into dramatic richness – a reading, uncharacteristically, not particularly Russian in flavour – but still in control of foregrounding Tchaikovsky’s brilliance.
Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara is ballet as meaningful theatre and soulful dance as a vehicle for storytelling without words, created in a way that gives the impression of having spoken its conversations over its entirety. That’s about as close as you can get to feeling completely absorbed in the art of ballet. Let it shine for the next generation.
Nutcracker – The Story of Clara
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, melbourne
Season continues to 10 June 2017
For more information, visit: www.australianballet.com.au for details.
Image: Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov feature in Nutcracker – The Story of Clara – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Paul Selar