Forget the Sugar Plum Fairy and everything else you ever thought about ‘The Nutcracker’, for this production is about Clara and the life she leads, weaving in both the history of ballet and its revolution in Australia, and history itself.
It has been 25 years since Graeme Murphy conceived this extraordinary production of the classic ballet. Murphy, who has danced with the Australian Ballet and was the artistic director of Sydney Dance Company for over 30 years, has become known to take classical ballets and delve into their deeper stories.
“When you take something that’s inherently fanciful and weave some truths into it, that for me works. And if you can find a context dancers can relate to they will invest so much more,” Murphy says of his work.
Since this work, Murphy has reinterpreted ‘Swan Lake’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Firebird’, to name just a few, for The Australian Ballet, cementing his place as one of this country’s most creative and cotemporary choreographers.
‘The Nutcracker-The Story of Clara’ follows the back story of the protagonist. The ballet opens on Christmas Eve in the 1950s somewhere in Melbourne. Children are playing and Clara, a former Russian Ballerina, returns home from shopping. As she turns on the radio, the sweet sounds of Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’ fills the small room as nostalgia hits Clara.
Clara’s Russian friends visit her and they share a few drinks and dances together. Clara’s doctor arrives with footage of Clara’s performing years with the Russian Imperial Ballet. Her body weakening, the guests leaves and Clara is ordered to rest. And so her hallucinations begin.
Through Clara’s hallucinations we discover that as a child she strived for perfection in ballet classes which lands her an acceptance into the Imperial Ballet. We also learn of her love affair with a Russian soldier, who upon the Russian Revolution breaking out in 1917, is killed.
What is most significant is how Clara’s performances weave in the traditional story of ‘The Nutcracker’ and the history of ballet in Australia. As a prima ballerina, Clara performs the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy for the Tsar and Tsarina. When her beloved dies, dancing becomes her only companion whereby she joins the Ballet Russes. She spends years touring the globe with the Ballet Russes, arriving in Australia in 1940. Due to the second World War, she is forced to stay in Australia, taking her last curtsey at war’s end.
‘The Nutcracker- The Story of Clara’ offers an intriguing 2 hour performance for the audience as the story unfolds in different ways. For starters, this ballet opens with characters speaking dialogue rather than dancing it, which is almost non-existent in ballets. In fact, the dancing doesn’t actually begin until nearly 5 minutes into the performance and even then it isn’t your traditional classical ballet. A lot of the choreography we see from the elder Clara and her friends is influenced by styles other than ballet: folk, contemporary and character. As the performance progresses, we begin to see more of the classical ballet through Clara’s performances as a ballerina. Act 2 showcases Tai Chi and Contemporary dance as a homage to the original Chinese and Arabian dances in the classic Nutcracker. Clara’s final performance in the ballet mimics the choreography of the Ballet Russes production of ‘The Nutcracker’ truly tying her story into the original. Murphy’s choreography is unique, thoughtful and executed well by the performers.
There are three Clara’s in this production- Clara the Elder, Clara the Ballerina and Clara the Child; all of which play a vital role in the story.
Clara the Elder was performed by Ai-Gul Gaisina, a Russian Ballerina and former Australian Ballet dancer. Gaisina captures the essence of Clara the Elder perfectly, with her theatrics and dance talent conveying the role as the storyteller to perfection.
Principal artist Leanne Stojmenov shines in her role as Clara The Ballerina. Her talent is alluring, her stage presence felt by the audience. The expressiveness in her movement tells of the beautiful and sad life that Clara lead. She possesses a particular grace that makes her dancing truly mesmerising. Stojmenov is partnered perfectly with Kevin Jackson who fulfils the role of the Doctor and Beloved Officer. Jackson’s strength and skill shines in his performance.
Clara the Child was performed by Emma Gavan, a guest artist of the Australian Ballet. Other guest artists included founding Australian Ballet performer Colin Peasley, Graeme Hudson and Audrey Nicholls who dance the roles of Clara’s Russian friends.
‘The Nutcracker- The Story of Clara’ is a fantastic and unique production that cements The Australian Ballet as a diverse company that represents Australia and its history. Through choreographic storytelling, Murphy has created a ballet masterpiece that strongly lives on 25 years later.