While almost every ballet company in the world trots out its Nutcracker every year (as a fundraising drive of sorts), The Australian Ballet reserves their presentations of the immortal classic to be part of their repertory seasons. Making it even more special is the sumptuous splendour and theatrical magic of Peter Wright’s glorious production.
First seen in Australia in 2007, this 24-year-old version must have seemed quite avant-garde at its 1990 Birmingham premiere. While there is a decadent old-world glamour to the Stahlbaum family home, the abstract scenic collage of act two and the macabre undertones of the painted show curtain give the production a definite edge.
A clever highlight of John F Macfarlane’s scenic design is seen in act two, when a scrolling backdrop changes the scene to Drosselmeyer’s fantastic world. A raked reflective upstage floor gives the watercolour oversized floral designs an extra layer of gloss. The flow of scene changes is expertly managed, particularly the final dissolve back to the family home.
Drawing from the full spectrum of shades of red, Macfarlane paints a beautiful overall picture in act two, from the candy gloss scarlet and white of the Mirlitons to the dusky reds and pinks of the Roses to the palest musk pink for the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince. Although still meeting the child-friendly expectation, there is a faintly sinister aspect to costumes for characters such as the dolls Harlequin, Columbine and Jack-in-the-Box. The rats are also more menacing than might be seen at Disney on Ice. These touches add interest to a show that is often designed to just be pleasant.
Back at the helm after a brief respite during La Bayadère, conductor extraordinaire Nicolette Fraillon presides over an exquisite rendition of Tchaikovsky’s hit parade score by Orchestra Victoria. The evening begins with a brisk and exciting playing of the overture. The orchestra displays delicate grace during any pianissimo sections, and considerable restraint is shown during the hypnotic Arabian Dance.
Wright’s choreography features a dream lead role for a young female dancer, with Clara taking part in many of the act two divertissements rather than just watching. Look every bit the breathless fifteen-year-old girl, Benedicte Bemet danced the role beautifully on opening night, giving an altogether enchanting performance.
Kevin Jackson brought a heroic nobility to the Prince, with his mighty quadriceps propelling him to great heights, especially in his second act two solo. Bolstered by a magical eleventh hour arrival, and one of the most famous pieces of music, Madeleine Eastoe enchanted the crowd as the Sugar Plum Fairy as she danced with elegant refinement and precision. In their climactic pas de deux, Jackson and Eastoe successfully injected a spark of romance, which is no mean feat given that this is the first and last scene shared by the pair.
In a somewhat unusual choice, magician Drosselmeyer was played by Principal Artist Andrew Killian rather than a guest artist. In an acting part that involves little or no dance, Killian infused the role with majestic power, creating many moments of stage magic thanks to Drosselmeyer’s extra large cape.
Jacob Sofer, Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden performed the mighty Russian dance to great acclaim. Christopher Rodgers-Wilson and Vivienne Wong displayed carefully metered control, and a touch of cheeky passion, as live dolls Harlequin and Columbine. Charismatic soloist Brett Chynoweth stood out in act one as Clara’s dancing partner, reliably imbuing an extra level of enjoyment to the role through his animated facial expression.
Special mention to young guest artist Paolo Cini, who created a delightful characterisation of Clara’s envious younger brother Fritz.
Even without the direct connection of the festive season, Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker stands in its own right as a wonderful piece of entertainment. The marvelous production and gorgeous dancing of are sure to thrill dance fans. Its success as a joyous introduction to ballet for young theatregoers is unrivalled.
The Nutcracker plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 25 September 2014.
The Nutcracker plays Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 28 November – 17 December 2014.
Man in Chair’s 2014 reviews of The Australian Ballet:
Daniel Gaudiello and Madeleine Eastoe in La Bayadère “In the third of their act three pas de deux, the pair really soars, leaving no doubt of the power of their love.”
Adam Bull and Lana Jones in Imperial Suite “As a pair, Jones and Bull communicate in imperceptible shorthand that conveys trust and enhances their synchronicity.”
A range of artists in Bodytorque.DNA “Vividly representing the theme of all love being equal, Topp stages a rare pas de deux between two men, to the gorgeous sound of Faure’s Opus 50.”
A range of artists in Chroma “…the chief attraction here is the opportunity to see so many of The Australian Ballet’s wonderful Principal Artists on stage together.”
Adam Bull and Lucinda Dunn in Sir Kenneth McMillan’s Manon “In the final Melbourne appearances of her highly distinguished 23-year career, Lucinda Dunn makes a superb role premiere as Manon.”
A range of artists in 2014 Telstra Ballet in the Bowl “…a mutual opportunity for the dancers and the ballet-loving public of Melbourne to show their love and affection for each other.”
Photos: Jeff Busby