Nutcracker – The Story of Clara

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 2.

Many decades ago, when I was visiting Canada, a young woman asked me whether Christmas was in June in Australia. She knew winter in the southern hemisphere happened in the middle months of the year. It followed then, that Christmas must be in June because Christmas is in the middle of winter. She was not in any way uneducated. It’s just that deep in her bones she knew Christmas was accompanied by snow and mistletoe. It was a winter festival.

Australians know all about a snowy Christmas in theory and not so long ago experienced aspects of it in practice. British colonialism and American influences – a huge roast for lunch, fivepences in the pudding and Bing crooning White Christmas – saw to that when I was a child. Except that on Christmas Day it was possibly going to be 40 degrees (celcius, of course), particularly in the southern states, and a roast with all the trimmings was an insane choice.

It’s this second kind of Christmas – our Christmas – that Graeme Murphy summons at the start of his Nutcracker – The Story of Clara. It speaks to us and our shared understanding of the way things are.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

As the ballet begins it is a hot, enervating Christmas Eve in Melbourne. Children play and squabble in the street as Clara slowly makes her way home after doing a bit of shopping. She is now elderly and ill and has no family, but there is a circle of friends who, like her, are former dancers who came to Australia after escaping the tumult of revolutionary Russia in 1917 and the mid-century European conflagration.

The ballet becomes a memory piece as Clara hears Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music emerging scratchily from her wireless on this searing December evening. She and her friends dance joyously, if a bit creakily, to this music that means so much to them. What if these rackety old Russian chums go on a touch too much? In putting this Seniors Card group onstage Murphy pays sweet and profound homage to those who found refuge in Australia during and after World War II and sowed the seeds for his career and that of so many others. Indeed, those others include the great Colin Peasley, with TAB from the start in 1962. He’s now 82 and was onstage on opening night.

When her doctor comes to inquire after Clara’s health – yes, friends, the ballet is set in the 1950s – he brings a special gift, film of these dancers in their heyday. The fragile Clara’s mind turns even more deeply towards the past.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Amelia Soh, Leanne Stojmenov, Ai-Gul Gaisina and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Daniel Boud

Murphy weaves familiar Nutcracker images into Clara’s memories of student days, stage triumphs, her strife-torn homeland, her doomed lover and years of travel with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes. Most poignantly, Clara is now young.

Murphy, who created this narrative in 1992 with designer Kristian Fredrikson, lets us see Clara as a child and a starry ballerina as well as in her declining years. The moments when he puts all three together are deeply moving. On opening night there was intense pleasure in seeing septuagenarian Ai-Gul Gaisina’s Russian training brought to bear on Clara, the Elder – be in no doubt this is a dancing role, age be damned – and the restrained sorrow of her character. Eleven-year-old Amelia Soh was a beautifully poised Clara, the Child.

As the in-her-prime Clara, Leanne Stojmenov danced the heady first pas deux as if her spine were made of deluxe satin ribbon. She then transformed herself for the elegant, more contained formality of the splendid Act II grand pas deux, supported superbly by Jarryd Madden, who looks born to channel the Ballets Russes.

Kevin Jackson was Clara’s Beloved Officer on opening night. His dancing was big and generous and there is no higher praise than to say he continues the tradition of superb partnering established by the role’s originator, Steven Heathcote. Now a ballet master with the company, Heathcote is only one degree of separation from the Ballets Russes via his teacher in Perth, Kira Bousloff. Magic.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

The Snowflakes in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boyd

On opening night the corps looked somewhat ragged in the Snowflakes scene where tempestuous flurrying is the order of the day and the Waltz of the Flowers where it is not. In both sections, however, Fredrikson’s costumes were a fabulous diversion.

The application of Tchaikovsky’s score to this narrative isn’t always entirely satisfactory, a point underlined at the opening by a stolid performance from the Opera Australia Orchestra under Nicolette Fraillon. Murphy has always acknowledged the difficulties in Act II of inserting a string of divertissements into the action. He uses some of that music effectively in the depiction of Clara’s life and career – the Sugar Plum Fairy’s tinkling celesta accompanies a dance for Clara as she fends off jewel-bearing visitors to her dressing room – while the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese dances depict places Clara visits as she tours with Colonel de Basil’s company.

The Spanish dance is the most straightforward and the Chinese by far the best. After the sound of gongs there is a long silence as a group of tai chi practitioners emerges from the morning mist. When the Chinese music starts Clara enters to observe this new, to her, form of movement. What a relief it is to be spared the usual hideous caricature of the Chinese, all coolie hats, pointed fingers and waggling heads.

For this revival Murphy has reverted to his first thoughts for the Arabian music. We are portside in some Egyptian city and watch, lengthily and not terribly thrillingly, men haul on ropes and tumble about. It is preferable to the alternative seen in 2000 when Clara visited secluded women somewhere vaguely situated in the Middle East, but neither idea works brilliantly.

These are minor points. The ballet’s stream of emotional highs carry the day, in the ecstatic Act I pas deux, the richly furnished grand pas de deux in Act II, the touching depiction of young love cut short and the persistence of memories as life fades. And above all, of course, there’s that Christmas in summer, in Melbourne. Ours.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara celebrates its quarter century this year and there’s no reason to think it won’t be around for another 25 years.

Ends May 20 in Sydney. Melbourne, June 2-10.

Giselle

Queensland Ballet, Playhouse Theatre, Brisbane, June 21 and 22

BRISBANE is turning into quite the ballet town. All performances of the Bolshoi Ballet’s Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream were sold out and one might have expected the visit from such a starry company to have diverted dollars from the Queensland Ballet. Far from it. QB was able to put on extra performances of its year’s mainstage opener, Cinderella, and Giselle also has more performances than originally planned and is heading for a sell-out season.

Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence in Queensland Ballet's Giselle. Photo: David Kelly

Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence in Queensland Ballet’s Giselle. Photo: David Kelly

It was clear from reactions at the first three performances of Giselle that many in the audience were unfamiliar with it, despite its place in the canon. It was also clear by the end of all three shows that people were delighted with what they saw, and so they should have been. QB has a fine production, staged with great integrity and care by Ai-Gul Gaisina (it is based on Petipa’s revivals of the Coralli/Perrot choreography) and boasting some outstanding dancing. Gaisina clearly allowed each cast to find its own way into the key roles while honouring the ballet’s floating, romantic style. It was also extremely satisfying to see the attention paid to mime, here done in a lucid, unaffected way.

The challenge new artistic director Li Cunxin has set himself can’t be underestimated. He has a company numbering only 27 dancers, although he also has access to about 20 young dancers in the QB pre-professional program.

Not only that, there is a high proportion of new dancers. When Li held auditions late last year he greatly admired quite a few dancers from the Australian Ballet School’s graduating year. Half the company has been dancing professionally for only six months, and a handful more for only a couple of years.

Li did bring in two new principal artists, former Australian Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Matthew Lawrence, and Huang Junshuang, latterly of Houston Ballet, to beef up the upper end of the ranks. (Huang is listed as a guest international principal artist and his position is funded by private support; it was announced at the Giselle opening night party that this will continue next year.) The mid-tier was thinly populated and still is, although the recent and extremely well-deserved elevation of Lisa Edwards to the rank of soloist is a start in the building process.

It was an impressive feat, then, to be able to field three strong casts, one of them with a wild card in the shape of 20-year-old Alexander Idaszak, making his debut as Albrecht. Idaszak is one of the newbies half a year into his first job so it was a bold move to cast him, but with principal Hao Bin out of contention for Albrecht due to injury it was decided to take the gamble. Idaszak seemed not the slightest fazed by the assignment. Sure, he looks about 12 1/2 – an unusually well-built 12 1/2 – but he took to the stage with impressive aplomb. There were, not surprisingly, some rough patches but Idaszak has noble bearing, excellent form – his Act II cabrioles were crackers – and his partnering is a credit to his ABS teachers.

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

He made a pretty good fist of the acting, too. Sensible choices were made: his Albrecht isn’t a cheating aristo cad; he’s just a puppyish kid who needs to marry well but is looking for love elsewhere. In this scenario it was quite right that his betrothed, Bathilde (Mia Thompson), was a condescending bitch and that Huang’s Hilarion (no chance of principal artists having too many rest days at QB; he was Albrecht only 18 hours earlier) was a tough, mature man.

At this Saturday matinee performance Idaszak was partnered with one of QB’s most vibrant and individual dancers. Clare Morehen was a lively, sunny Giselle, the kind for whom spreading her skirt on the small outdoors bench is a cheeky bit of flirtation rather than a protective move. She was engagingly wide-eyed in Bathilde’s presence but brought a glint of steel to Act II’s mysterious, moonlit world of the Wilis. Peter Cazalet’s set design and Ben Hughes’s lighting came into their own here after a perfectly correct but unexceptional Act I.

Friday’s opening came with added, unwanted drama when Meng Ningning injured her left foot badly early in the first act. Few would have realised, particularly as she beautifully negotiated the diagonal of hops on pointe – on her left foot. Meng danced on to the end of the first half, hiding her pain to play a girl of heartbreaking innocence and trust.  No wonder she looked so believably ill when her heart first starts to give way and so distraught in the mad scene that ends Act I.

With Meng unable to continue – and I would have loved to see her Act II; she is such an ethereal dancer – elegant Huang was out of the picture as Albrecht. Fellow principal artists Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence stepped seamlessly into the breach to give a glowing account of the second act. Walsh had been sitting in the audience watching the first half; Lawrence had appeared in the Act I non-dancing role of the Duke of Courland.

Their full scheduled performance on Saturday night revealed Lawrence as a practised and charming lothario and Walsh as meltingly sweet. Walsh has a pre-Raphaelite face and adagio to die for, controlling the slowest of slow raises of her leg as if gravity were somehow banished for the moment. Lawrence’s high and handsome series of entrechats – the tight beaten steps Albrecht is forced to do unto death until he’s saved by the bell and the breaking dawn– were brilliantly executed on both Friday and Saturday. In this cast Vito Bernasconi played Hilarion as a good lad possibly not possessed of the quickest mind – a strong contrast with Lawrence’s savoir faire. In the first cast, Nathan Scicluna gave the gamekeeper a thoughtful, deep-hearted quality that was most attractive.

Daniel Gaudiello, a guest artist from the Australian Ballet, puts a fourth Albrecht into the mix and his two performances  with Walsh promise much. He is an immaculate artist making his role debut here, which makes it one for the diary.

Two dancers distinguished themselves greatly as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Lisa Edwards, seen on Friday and Saturday evening, has greatly grown in authority of late and demonstrated a commanding presence and gaze and wonderful elevation. Eleanor Freeman’s expressive use of her upper body at the Saturday matinee was magical.

The peasant pas de huit is the most problematic element. It spreads the load of what is frequently done as a pas de deux but exposes some weaknesses in style, unity and quality. Some of the women had not absorbed all the nuances of soft, rounded romantic mode and eloquent epaulement but the group of 12 wilis really came into their own with strikingly precise alighment and immaculately timed turns and gestures in their confrontations with Hilarion and Albrecht. Superb. Of the lead wilis I most enjoyed Eleanor Freeman’s other-worldly lightness and demeanour.

QB had originally planned to perform Giselle to taped music for budgetary reasons but was able to secure private support to engage Camerata of St John’s for the season. Adolphe Adam’s score was arranged for this quite small force – only 26 musicians – and QB music director Andrew Mogrelia drew performances that improved markedly from show to show. While there were still too many glitches from the brass and, to a lesser extent, the woodwinds, it was a fair start to what may be a continuing relationship. (Alas the July 6 performances will be performed to recorded music.)

After his Saturday matinee Idaszak was considerately taken out of the evening’s pas de huit, as I was told before the performance began. Given a well-deserved rest, I thought.  No, he was just doing the less demanding background stuff in the first act. That’s what happens in a small company:  lots of hard work, the need to keep ego well in check – and fantastic opportunities for those who are ready to grab them.

Giselle continues until July 6. Daniel Gaudiello appears as Albrecht with Rachael Walsh as Giselle on June 27 and July 4. Other casting has not been released.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 24.