The Australian Ballet: Nutcracker – The Story of Clara review

Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker does far more than tell The Story of Clara, celebrating the backstory of vision, passion and talent that formed the bedrock for our modern, 55-years-young company The Australian Ballet.

First staged some twenty-five years ago, Nutcracker – The Story of Clara now has a sentimental history of its own, over and above the vibrant history of ballet that plays out in the work’s rich narrative. Not seen on stage in Melbourne for eight years, the ballet has an extraordinary freshness and vitality, not to mention a dazzling, intricate beauty.

Murphy’s ingenious vision takes the bones of the traditional narrative of The Nutcracker and repurposes the music and characters for a journey through time. Instead of pampered children festively frolicking on Christmas Eve, bone-tired ballerina Clara struggles home with her shopping on a hot Christmas Eve before welcoming her dear Russian friends to her modest St Kilda apartment.

The multi-generational ballet features a healthy showing of mature-age dancers, who imbue the early scenes with tender warmth. Russian-born dancer Ai-Gul Gaisina, a member of The Australian Ballet since 1973, imbues Clara the Elder with a sense of guarded delight as the elderly ballerina revisits her glory days.

Having Clara played by three dancers, Murphy cleverly flags his concept for embedded memories by focusing much of the early work on matryoshka dolls. The memories and experiences of the younger are progressively stored and preserved inside the elder.

Before long, the party breaks up and Clara’s memories flood the room with giant Bolshevik rats and dancing snowflakes. Rising from her bed, Clara, the Elder has yielded the stage to Clara, the Ballerina, and the doctor has flipped his costume to reveal Clara’s Beloved Officer. Mere seconds after rising from the bed, Leanne Stojmenov dances a grand pas de deux with gallant partner Kevin Jackson. One of the clear highlights of the night, this glorious sequence is a slow burn, heightening the sense of romance by keeping the pair in constant close contact with each other.

The exquisite work of the corps de ballet as the undulating snowflakes is mesmerising in its precision and creativity.

Nicolette Fraillon leads Orchestra Victoria in an exacting performance of the very well known score, illuminating rich details with subtle shifts in tempo and emphasis. Harp work (sadly not credited in the program) is simply magical.

Act two features a cavalcade of images and scenarios, many beautifully recreated from Russian art. Clara, the Child studies ballet at the Imperial Conservatoire, before she and her classmates magically mature and subsequently graduate. At the height of her carefree happiness, Clara dances a joyous pas de deux with her Officer before joining him at a grand ball. This scene dissolves to a performance of The Nutcracker, in which Clara, as Clara, dances with the noble Nutcracker Prince of Jarryd Madden. The precision of this majestic, carefully calibrated pas de deux is distinguished by the radiant joy emanating from Stojmenov and Madden.

With the intrusion of war, and the tragic death of the Officer, Clara embarks on a world tour with the Ballet Russes, giving Murphy the opportunity to set the Egyptian, Spanish and Chinese dances in context.

The company ultimately arrives in Australia, giving a grand performance of The Nutcracker, before the final bittersweet dissolve back to the apartment of Clara.

The meticulous design work of Kristian Fredrikson is crucial to the success of the piece. Fluid dissolves between scenes maintain a breathless, dreamlike flow to the work. Costumes are both a tribute to the period and a gorgeous attraction in their own right. Working with original lighting designer John Drummond Montgomery, Fredrikson created a range of atmospheric colour palettes for the work. All of the various settings look truly grand on the vast State Theatre stage.

Lovers of dance who have no more than a vague memory of the power and beauty of Nutcracker – The Story of Clara are urged to revisit this seminal celebration of the rich history and heritage of ballet in Australia.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 10 June 2017.

Photos: Jeff Busby

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