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.
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.
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.
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.