The ballet that best signifies Australia has nothing to do with the flora and fauna, the surf or the outback. That was the trend when ballet in Australian meant British, American and Polish dancers with fake Russian names toured to the continent under the banner, Ballets Russes, and choreographers thought Ned Kelly and Waltzing Matilda would make excellent subjects for their narratives.
The true Australian ballet is Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker – the Story of Clara, a landmark in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire since it premiered in 1992. The ballet has returned to the stage for its fourth revival, with this month’s season at the Sydney Opera House. On opening night, May 2, the company performed the ballet for the 125th time.
Commissioned by the former artistic director, Maina Gielgud, Nutcracker was designed by Kristian Fredrikson, a collaborator who always did so much more than designing. With Murphy he worked on the Nutcracker narrative, helping to create the story of Clara, whose life represents the history of ballet in Australia.
Their Clara is a Russian dancer who studied in St Petersburg during the last years of the Romanovs, who became a prima ballerina at the Mariinsky, who fell in love with an officer who was shot in the Bolshevik revolution and who, like so many dancers were forced to escaped to other lands.
Clara’s tale, from childhood to her death, is depicted by three Claras, the student, the ballerina and the older lady whose flashbacks of her life take place in the span of one evening when her émigré friends have left her humble Melbourne home after celebrating Christmas.
The Australian narrative begins before they arrive, when Clara comes home with a miniature Christmas tree, walks into her living room, turns on a 1950s wireless, and hears a snippet from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker that fades as the Opera Australia orchestra, led by Nicolette Fraillon, picks up the same Tchaikovsky music.
Watching this revival, with a new generation playing the roles of Clara, her lover, a bunch of bossy Australian kids, Aussie sailors, Tzarist officers, Romanov royals and Bolshevik revolutionaries in the costumes of giant rats, reinforces my belief that this ballet best represents the country’s history, not just its dance history, but also, through its mannerisms, spoken words (from time to time) and designs, the way it reflects elements of mid 20th century Australia, and does so with panache. It always gets a warm reaction from the audience.
That history starts before the music, with children squabbling as they pull skipping ropes from one another while they play in old Clara’s backyard, complete with clothesline. Fredrikson’s design for Clara’s 1950s’ living room is musty, sepia-toned, plastered with mustardy wallpaper. The émigré female friends wear toning brown and orange print dresses, sensible shoes and hats.
The pleasure of this season, and past seasons, is the casting of former dancers, now fifty-something to 80-something, who have danced with the Australian Ballet in the past, or with other dance companies, among them Colin Peasley, who retired from the AB in 2012 after 50 years with the company.
With the oldies, it’s the little things that matter; one woman’s attempt to nuzzle up to Clara’s visiting doctor, fussing about in the kitchen, playful games with babushka dolls, heartfelt farewells to Clara as she rests in bed after too much strenuous Russian dancing and Peasley’s exit and re-entry as he grabs a bottle of vodka, his gift to Clara, that still has a drop of two left. Might as well take it home.
Murphy’s choreography blends ballet with his trademark moves of twirling arms and hands, shuffling backwards with feet in parallel, complex lifts and throws, among them a leap by the ballerina into the arms of her lover, sliding along the floor and for the Snowflakes, falling to the floor as they twirl on their backsides, somewhat burdened by their longish tutus and big, feathery headpieces.
The choreography ranges from the émigrés Russian dance steps and stamps, to old school Russian ballet circa 1890, with the corps women wearing long, curly, red wigs, a vivacious sailors’ dance of leaps and somersaults signifying the arrival in Australia of the touring ballet companies, the exactitude of a ballet class in St Petersburg, the retro style of the Borovansky Ballet in which Clara makes her farewell performance, supported by the corps de ballet, with the women dressed in tutus with ridiculously tiny skirts and the men in plush velvet jackets.
Murphy added an extra later to the production, film footage, first in a scene at the Christmas gathering where Clara and her fellow dancers on the Australian tours watch grainy footage of their younger selves screened on a big white tablecloth, and later with archival footage of the Bolshevik revolution and the
subsequent devastation of both soldiers and civilians.
The traditional national dances of Nutcracker become travelogues as Clara and her colleagues sail to Spain, then through the Suez Canal and to China on their way to Australia. The most effective of these is the darkened ensemble of tai chi dancers, moving in silence, until Clara arrives, pulled in a rickshaw, to the accompaniment of the flutes in the Nutcracker’s Chinese Dance.
As Clara, the Elder, the Russian-born, Vaganova trained, Ai-Gul Gaisina, dances with elegance, conviction and poignancy, still looking like a ballet dancer to the last moment when, after her farewell performance dream, she lies on her bed, her body layered within the arms of Clara, the Child, (Amelia Soh) and Clara, the Ballerina (principal, Leanne Stojmenov).
Stojmenov, and Kevin Jackson in the roles of both doctor and Clara’s lover, are well paired especially in their exquisite pas de deux backstage at the Mariinsky, she in her white silk dress, he in his white officer’s uniform.
Jarryd Madden, as the Nutcracker Prince in the Mariinsky theatre scene, partnered Stojmenov with much aplomb, strength and confidence.
Yes, there were hiccups on opening night, with rather jerky transitions from one set to another, and occasional moments when the corps looked as if rehearsal time had been brief. But the emotional impact of this uniquely Australian Nutcracker remains as powerful as ever.