An Australian classic continues to ring soundly 25 years on from its debut, but now, Graeme Murphy’s retelling of the most popular classical ballet of all time is uniquely Australian. Historically Nutcracker is set at Christmas time amidst a snowy backdrop of good-cheer and Yule logs burning on a hearth. Murphy’s Nutcracker is designed to give the story more depth and pertinence to a more southern hemisphere mind-set. “The Story of Clara” manages to split its time between Melbourne and St. Petersburg, bringing a unique twist to a popular story.
Following the death of Serge Diagalev and his original Ballet Russe, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured large parts of North America during World War II. It was the first time many Americans saw Russian ballet and from that experience the commercialization of The Nutcracker sprung after its American debut in 1940. Truly a phenomenon, The Nutcracker elbowed its way into popular culture unlike any other ballet in history. From small regional ballet companies to the New York City Ballet, all rely on the annual revenue The Nutcracker brings to fund the rest of the season. Although a number of Ballets Russes companies toured Australia between 1936 and 1940, it seems the Nutcracker phenomenon did not pick up as much as it did in the States. With this consideration it is even more impressive what Murphy has been able to accomplish.
“The Story of Clara” is not a parade of clever kitsch and parody much like American choreographer Mark Morris’ “The Hard Nut” or British choreographer Matthew Bourne’s perhaps that would be too obvious. With creative partners Janet Vernon and Kristian Fredrikson, Murphy’s ambitious vision is to not only expand the story but give its characters depth of emotion. The ballet opens with young children playing in a modest garden with a footy ball and jump rope underneath an old rotary clothesline. It’s Christmas and they are dressed in singlets rather than woolly coats. As the overture begins Clara enters her modest home and prepares for a gathering of old friends. Act 1 is mostly dedicated to reminiscing about the past and reliving the party guests’ Russian roots. There is engaging humor and beautiful folk dance reminding the audience of how the characters are intertwined. As the evening progresses it becomes clear that Clara is unwell and must be put to bed with her loyal doctor at her side. Clara has fitful dreams of her youthful life in St. Petersburg and a lost love.
Highlights of Friday night’s opening performance include Fredrikson’s ornate costumes and set, impressive film collage by Phillippe Chariuet and truly original transitions that reflect the choreographer’s artistic genius at work. Clara the Elder is beautifully acted with emotional depth by Ai-Gul Gaisina, and Leanne Stojmenov as Clara the Ballerina, who dances Murphy’s intricate weaving of classical and contemporary choreography with aplomb. Ms Stojmenov’s stand-out moment at the end of Act 1 is in the Snow Pas de Deux with principal artist Kevin Jackson. After an endless series of asymmetric lifts, she finds stillness while balancing an arabesque en pointe for what feels like a suspension of time. The Waltz of the Snowflakes has some tantalizing moments reminiscent of a Busby Berkeley film complete with soft-serve vanilla ice cream wigs and inline peel-offs from standing to floor and back up again; moves that are generally saved for a modern dance ensemble rather than a classical corps de ballet.
Act 2 opens with a ballet class of young dancers from the Russian Imperial Conservatoire featuring a young Clara as she trains to become a world-class ballerina. Arguably the most iconic waltz from the Tchaikovsky score is the “Waltz of the Flowers” which proved to be a choreographic highlight in Murphy’s production. He is clearly a master at intermingling traditional waltz moves with pointe work and contemporary intricacies. Combined with some of the most stunning costumes in the production, the effect is utter decadence and successfully reflects the Czar and Czarina’s over indulgence that eventually led to their demise. The scene reaches its pinnacle with the Grand Pas de Deux. Once again Murphy exercises his choreographic expertise in mixing traditional partnering moves with innovative contemporary lifts that add to the spectacle of the scene. And then Murphy does something completely unexpected and daring: the sacred “sugar plum fairy” variation is used merely as a transition scene with virtually no dancing. Audience members are either horrified or unaffected, but without a doubt, it’s a bold move!
Music aficionados will appreciate hearing the long lost English jig or “Toffee” variation, which was removed from the score by Tchaikovsky after the first day of rehearsals. Original Nutcracker choreographer Marius Petipa did not like the music – but lucky for us Murphy does and has created a delightful Australian Sailors dance that adds to the lighter side of the production.
There is something to be said about the longevity of this production. It has clearly won the hearts of the dance community by offering meaty roles for retired professionals and young student performers. “The Story of Clara” has also captured audiences across Australia. This interpretation of “The Nutcracker” won’t be exported to any major cities in Europe, Asia or the US unlike Murphy’s Swan Lake. “The Story of Clara” has the soul of Australia and attempts to redefine an old tale through an Australian lens. The production challenges its audience to think and learn something of the history of Russian Ballet and how that tradition influenced ballet in Australia.
Although some viewers might consider this production an all ages show I would not recommend “The Story of Clara” to young children. Dark themes and mature subject matter would better suit older children who stand to benefit from a historical work of art. Whether you are a traditionalist or a modernist could determine how much an audience member appreciates “The Story of Clara”, either way there is no denying Murphy’s provocative work and merit in being an artistic treasure.