An English-Glaswegian Nutcracker in Australia

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Left to right: Flowers, Clara and Prince in front, Spanish, Arabian, Chinese Dancers, Mirlitons and Russian Dancers. Photo: Jim McFarlane.

Left to right: Flowers, Clara and Prince in foreground, Spanish, Arabian, Chinese Dancers, Mirlitons and Russian Dancers. Photo: Jim McFarlane.

The Nutcracker
Music – Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Choreography – Peter Wright, Lev Ivanov, Vincent Redmon
Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre, 8 December 1.30

Production – Peter Wright
Set and costume design – John F. Macfarlane
Lighting design – David Finn
Original producer – Birmingham Royal Ballet (1990)
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Conductor – Olivier-Philippe Cuneo

The Australian Ballet
Drosselmeyer – Damien Welch
Clara – Reiko Hombo
Prince – Kevin Jackson
Sugar Plum Fairy – Rachel Rawlins
and Artists of the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School

To create a seamless, whole Nutcracker, Peter Wright and John Macfarlane have married the ballet’s greatly varied styles, scenes and tones, with their own greatly varied décors, colours and styles while melding reality with fantasy. Not fantasy in the sense it’s often used these days to describe something frivolous and unreal, but the act of creating a subworld (to refer to Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories) full of wonder, inspiring curiosity with a self-propagating energy and its own internal logic or rules which allows more than the mere prosaic “suspension of disbelief,” but draws us in, absorbs us, allowing us to keep our belief and private imagination intact as we participate. And it leaves a piece of itself with us for a long time afterward. Their ballet is naturalistic too, certainly organic, as if it grows and comes alive, the décors and costumes showing a deep observation and understanding of nature, often recalling Robert Herrick’s poem Delight in Disorder. Each scene changes naturally and smoothly with the music, lightly carrying and passing on the momentum of wonder however great the change in tone. Recognizable historic and stylistic fragments — subtle but familiar images or patterns — thread through the piece. They deftly weave many other threads through the whole ballet to connect discrete dances and divertissments and make them seem all of a piece. For example, Clara dances in almost every scene, adapting to and relishing the different styles of the Spanish, Chinese, Flower Fairy etc. dances while retaining her character’s personality.

All the characters, though completely different from one another, existing as they do on different planes, seeming from the story even randomly selected, in this production give the sense they are all intuitively working to some however mysterious end or purpose with a certainty that they would bring it about, however crooked the path. There was a joyous sense of a co-operation between diverse characters transcending personal interest without losing their unique character, evoking the foundations of the European Union and the Vulcan IDIC — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, whereby differences are seen as an advantage inviting co-operation rather than fear. The production is cosmopolitan (in the way the original ballet was, created by a Frenchman and two Russians for an Italian ballerina) and the diversity of the company, with its global range of beautiful body types, brings this out strongly. This ballet evokes the idea that every moment and place is a singularity which is the manifestation of many superposed layers of history, or at least the result thereof, something you feel particularly strongly in Europe.

Like a fruit cake, the production invites the eyes to explore and find things in the fine detail and varied design, choreography and colours — Macfarlane uses no solid colours in this production, rather everything is mottled or overlapping or finely tessellated, streaked or striped. There is more than one person can possibly notice in one viewing but the beautifully laid-out program provides close-up photographs and fascinating information on how the costumes were made. Wright and Macfarlane are generous so far beyond the call of duty, some details can only be seen in the photos yet the fine complex details in the set and costumes match so harmoniously they are magical in themselves. The grand mechanical scene changes fit in as harmoniously with the music to seem as if set and music are one and the same animal.

The orchestra under Olivier Philippe Cuneo played with precise attacks which complemented Tchaikovsky’s strange percussion. The crescendos were never bombastic or too loud, which also works well in the theatre’s tricky acoustics. The slightly thinner-than-usual sound, compared to the Russian plushness with which Tchaikovsky is often played, worked well with this music, allowing the changing colours and muted horns to come out and the tutti merging easily with the woodwind and violin solos.

Reiko Hombo’s Clara tied a thread through the whole ballet, giving an extra thing to look forward to in each scene. She danced with a quickness combined with flowing lyricism that was very satisfying, her jetés having a natural bounce and her lifts with Kevin Jackson weightless. She was very expressive of Clara’s poignant joy of meeting her dream and the selfless curiosity of discovering so much more besides in the fantastic world.

At the beginning, Clara’s house is revealed over the last few bars of the overture, empty but everything prepared for the party. The room, candlelit with its orangey burgundy walls and even proportions recalls Sir John Soane’s house in London — the architect-collector whose choice of living room wall colour was inspired by ancient Greek red figure vases — though this set is much less cluttered. It feels more lived-in too, by virtue of a few little warm domestic details: Clara’s mother, quickly checking all is in order, stops to adjust her husband’s bow-tie and they admire one another’s outfits and later a rat (motorized) runs out and is deftly caught in a shoe-box in one try by a servant. She wears a late nineteenth century whalebone gown with great wide layered skirts sporting small pleated fans and bows but in colours varying from small streaks of burgundy to deep glowing crimsons to a persimmon orange-red which is picked out by the stage lights. There is some magic even in this worldly first scene. As the stage fills up with the party, the care and detail given to the supporting and background characters, their costumes and actions, make them seem very real. Clara here wears a ivory-white dress fashionable for the 1890’s with puffed shoulders and layers of muslin and silk and lots of buttons. Her friends are dressed similarly but more simply, with a little less silk. The boys are in well-cut double-breasted navy coats, not obviously military compared with the redcoat soldiers who come in later. The adult guests wear browns, varying from mustardy to grayish and navy, and the butler wears black velvet tails — generally rich earthy tones.

Clara’s friends dance in a friendly classical style with their partners and Clara’s parents dance too, in an archaic but elegant late 17th or early 18th century style, most expressive in its port à bras, her feet being mostly hidden. Even the grandparents dance (it is a treat to see former Borovansky ballerina Kathleen Geldard and early Australian Ballet danseur Colin Peasley), he seems Russian in his colourful skull cap. They dance light-heartedly with character and quite nimbly. The family gives the general impression of staid aristocracy relieved by artistic talent and interest — the mother is a dancer, the daughter is a dancer, but the grandfather does not disapprove as a man of his class might well have in the mid-nineteenth century. But historical accuracy is not as important here as the story, like Strauss’ DerRosenkavalier in that way, allowing the first scene to blend into the fantasy which follows rather than acting as bookends or a framing device. This perhaps implies the fairies always exist in some kind of not-always-sensible subspace under this first scene and the final one.

Drosselmeyer is a paid professional magician but Damien Welch gives him a deeper darker character, as if he is a grizzled elf visiting this world disguised as a magician, living off his more mundane tricks. For he shows what he is capable of, moving from the handkerchief and hidden candle trick to producing dancing Columbine and Harlequin (in silver, gray and black costumes, ruffed collars and masks) from silver boxes intricately carved with a full and crescent moon respectively and an exuberantly dancing jack-in-the-box sun (dressed in a Sun King style jacket and hat with puffy bulging striped tights) for the guests, to magically mending Clara’s broken nutcracker doll and finally the great adventure he takes Clara on in Act II.

There are more little details: Clara’s dancing partner suavely chats with her at the side of the room as they rest between dances — Tzu-Chao Chou’s dancing evoked a bit of Fred Astaire and his miming was delightful and expressive. The younger girls play with dolls at the front of the stage and the younger boys sit together on the stairs half concealed behind the tree. Eventually Drosselmeyer is paid and leaves as do Clara’s friends and the adults.

The light in the emptied room then changes from warm candle light to cool silvery crepuscular moonshine, dappled by the tree branches. Clara reappears, flying softly down the stairs to dance with her nutcracker again. She bumps one of the armchairs by the fireplace, it turns round and with a fright out jumps Columbine! Harlequin runs out too and they now move more like organic beings than mechanical toys. Drosselmeyer appears, fingers arched, sitting in the other chair. Clara collapses into the first chair and Columbine and Harlequin roll her back and forth in it. The pair leaves and Drosselmeyer takes Clara’s hand to reassure her, but he hasn’t finished. He kneels and points up toward but past the tree where we see only a golden glow. As the music begins to snowball more instruments and produce its fantastic melodies, the tree, like Tolkien’s Ents, comes back to life and begins to grow, first up and then branching out, taking on a delightful and disordered, more natural form. The room then disassembles, architectural elements fly apart at oblique angles. Franz’ toy soldiers roll back under the tree, now life size. Everything is magnified: the nutcracker appears briefly in a mask like the doll’s oversized head, and the fireplace becomes a frightening furnace out of human scale, glowing red and yellow. Out of it jumps the Rat King, waving a shredded flag of Ratdom, his muddy gray ragged uniform in the red and yellow furnace-light looks like a Géricault painting.

The nutcracker becomes the Prince and after Clara saves him, clocking the Rat King with her slipper, they dance their pas de deux. Kevin Jackson and Reiko Hombo had an easy rapport, gliding smoothly from steps into lifts, implying the spontaneity and unlooked-for empathy between the characters, who only just met in person. Jackson expressed both reassuring care for someone just entering his world as well as gratitude in the lifts and there was a shared excitement and wonder at his entering reality as a man, her simultaneously entering the fantasy world. They also made an especially close connection with the orchestra, one extended lift in particular came so precisely on an arching woodwind note, it seemed as if the music were a gentle beneficent force buoying her up.

Insensibly behind them, the Snow Fairies’ set slides in to fill the black hole behind the battlefield. The background is not pure white, but a very pale yellowish-red nacreous light suggests the soft atmospheric tension before a real snow fall. The corps de ballet here form mostly either ranks and rows or lines, each member retaining enough individuality to represent true snowflakes. Their romantic tutus are not pure white, but flecked with darker colours in the underneath layers.

Miwako Kubota’s cool regal elegance seemed to consciously arrange her Snowflakes. Her faërie deliberateness evocative of a real over-night snow fall — the way the total transformation of the landscape as seen at dawn when one wakes up seems to imply great works having taken place in the night with haste, just finished in time to leave a silent and tranquil white scene.

Here Clara gets to participate in these works, dancing with the Snowflakes. Gradually the they get more hurried and the four Winds fly on in silvery grey with long gray hair tied behind with a ribbon, turning great leaps around the women, who begin to swirl together. They stir up the Snowflakes until they reach a running gait, finally running through each-other in four long rows. (The Winds’ leaps were smooth with generous expansive ports à bras, and some leaps were extraordinarily high.)

The wind still blows at the start of Act II, the set now dark with stars and a big crescent moon shining through layered translucent curtains and wispy running clouds. Clara flies through outer space on the back of a giant goose. Drosselmeyer reappears, seeming to be her guide rather than creator of this world. The Rats return, rising out of the mist below on stage.

As the moon and stars roll away, the set for the divertissments rolls in gradually in pieces: at the back, a painting in streaks of black, gray and dark blue-green on a white background, like a simpler Kandinsky. Drosselmeyer stands in the centre-back in silhouette, cape raised, looking like a bat. Damien Welch here got to dance more, with expansive sorts of quick strong tours posés with twirls of the cloak.

The Waltz of the Flowers. Photo: Jim McFarlane.

The Waltz of the Flowers. Photo: Jim McFarlane.

More of the back painting is revealed as it rolls up past an inclined mirror at the base, so that the mirror image scrolls down simultaneously like a kaleidoscope. The mirror also reflects strange upside down shadows as dancers move across the back of the stage. Streaks of paint in crimson and plum red, then violets with splashes of black. Designs suspended from the ceiling are revealed too: a vaguely Mesoamerican anthropomorphized gold sun and red and yellow billowing ribbons in layers crown the set. A bunch of poppies appears at the wings. The back painting stops at a pair of orange-red water lilies with blue-green and brown swampy colours in a watercolour style, reflected in the mirror like a pond.

After another little tussle, the Rat King is put in a cage. The Spanish dancers march on in black flecked with red, They dance a little more softly than the typical Spanish ballet style, which does fit with Tchaikovsky’s style of “Spanish” music. Since there are two men and one woman, Clara dances with the extra man, adapting to their style, trying some turns and hops and lifts.

The Arabian Dance is pushed east, with Indian and Indonesian influences. They wear loose pants and a light flowing ankle length split skirt with contrasting stripes of pastel turquoise, purple and indigo with small streaks of green. The men’s heads are shaven and the woman wears a small gold crown on the centre of her head. They walk in strong slow steps with an angular port à bras with hands bent back, palms up, interspersed with running jumps, the men catching the woman between the three of them, lifting her above their heads.

The Chinese Dance has the pair in sunny yellow silk shirts with a tessellated black rooster pattern on their fronts, one has long Confucius whiskers and a fan, the other a yellow umbrella. They perform their jerky, high jumps with precision and energy.

The Russians swirl their wide cherry red pants and leap with great energy. They perform their fast rolling partnered jumps as Clara looks on.

The Mirlitons, originally candy, here are a little more savoury. Their stiff tutus and tops carry a stripy geometric chevron pattern in strongly contrasting alternating red and white and black, with some yellow and green here and there. The tops have a zigzag hem lying over the tutus and they carry black and white striped wands in red elbow-length gloves. They dance with high kicks and développés; they are not exactly Vaudeville or Moulin Rouge, but they do recall some distant earthy urbanity. Drosselmeyer hands Clara a wand of her own and she joins them for a time.

In the Waltz of the Flowers, the Flowers breeze on in layered romantic tutus from very pale gray-pink to a ruddier layer on top. The fabric of their tops comes down over their skirts and has a serrated pattern in a deep dark plum, near black, fading in steps to a pale peach, with flecks of magenta, giving the texture of a slightly rumpled peony. They dance in rows, breaking into small circles, bowing to the ground and rising again. The Rose Fairy’s consorts, in pale gray dreadlocks and silvery gray tights leap graceful amongst them.

Amber Scott’s Rose Fairy was delicate and elegant, turning with a soft joy. Her attendants exuded a contented, care-free self-assurance, that they wouldn’t care or think to be anything other than flowers.

Finally, the Sugar Plum Fairy comes out in a resplendent shimmering dress, not purely pink but with different shades of gray musky pink; the layered tutu is not stiff and straight but curves down at the edges in an elegant bell shape. Thousands of beads give texture and reflect in a fascinating way. The dress is a collage of different overlapping materials in the same colour to give subtle texture. She wears sparkling beads in her hair too.

Rachel Rawlins danced with an ease and generosity, smoothly floating through turns and quick fluid battements in a way that seemed to grow from the music. Her pirouettes were very plastic and natural, not self-consciously virtuosic. She had a very strong sense of the music and kept on time effortlessly. Her fluidity and buoyancy reinforced the underwater feel of the set paintings.

She dances alone with Clara too, the girl following her steps at first, but giving way to the joy of a sublimating dream. The Prince returns in a pastel grey and pink striped coat and dove gray tights, not out of place in Michael Mann’s original Miami Vice.

In Kevin Jackson’s solos his grands jetés and jumping turns were powerful but so soft and supple he made no noise and didn’t even seem to touch the stage between leaps. This quality was a treat to see and made his virtuosity unshowy, yet all the more virtuosic for having so much control and staying exactly on the beat of the music and with the spirit of the music.

Clara is then transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy for the final ecstatic pas de deux. This pas de deux, danced by Kevin Jackson and Rachel Rawlins, had the smoothness and fluid plasticity of both, the lifts floating and buoyant as if underwater or on the moon. Her body seemed at times to flow over and around his while coming down from the lifts, expressing their deep contentment together and a shared profound heart-revealing intimacy.

The scene ends with Drosselmeyer leading all on stage in a great ensemble in unison, all the costumes combining with the scenery spectacularly and harmoniously. Finally, the set comes away, that back-wall painting rolls down, back into itself and Clara’s house reassembles, the crepuscular moonshine returning. Drosselmeyer returns her safely, leaving her sleeping under the tree. It seems not like “just a dream” but that Drosselmeyer has come through as a mostly good, reliable fairy, returning Clara safely from the adventure with the gift of a poignant savoury-sweet memory of the joyous parade in which she participated.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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