Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in 'Nutcracker. The story of Clara.' The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

More thoughts on ‘Nutcracker. The Story of Clara’

I have to admit to disliking intensely the dumbing down of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara with the ridiculous description of it as ‘The Gum-Nutcracker.’ The work might have strong Australian resonances, but it is much more than a story about early developments in Australian ballet. The so-called ‘affectionate dubbing’ of it with reference to the fruit of the eucalyptus tree makes the work sound pathetic. Below are a few published comments that suggest that we should grow up and resist the temptation to trivialise.

Speaking of the slight nature of, and problematic issues surrounding the more traditional productions of Nutcracker (going right back to 1892), Professor Rodney Stenning Edgecombe writes:

When foundations are sandy, it’s better to re-lay them in concrete. And that is indeed what the brilliant Graeme Murphy has done in his version of the ballet, which, having subtitled The Story of Clara, he conceives it, as Bournonville did his ballets, as ‘frames around the biographical and travel pictures which constitute [an] actual theatre life’.

He then proceeds to analyse the ballet, its story, its choreography, its music, and its place within the history of ballet (not necessarily Australian ballet), in the most erudite terms, making reference to, and using quotations from some of the great names of world scholarship—August Bournonville, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Marcel Proust, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Patrick White, and others. Speaking about the Snowflakes scene, for example, he writes:

The snowflakes’ wild pirouettes with upflung arms … show how inventively Murphy can work within restrictive confines of the danse d’école. Indeed one can’t help thinking that the writing for this ensemble is deliberately transitional, Petipa Duncanised as it were. And because ‘Petipa Duncanised’ is all but a synonym for ‘Fokine’—at least the Fokine of Les Sylphides—this episode illustrates the transformation that the very art of ballet witnessed during Clara’s childhood.

What thrills me is that Edgecombe treats the work as an artistic creation of the highest order, one that deserves to be interpreted within the widest cultural context, not as some Snugglepot and Cuddlepie story (with apologies to May Gibbs). In his final paragraph, after discussing some issues he has with Marius Petipa’s work, and a similar issue he sees relating to the way Murphy has used a section of the music, Edgecombe says:

And what one allows to Petipa, one must allow to Murphy, a choreographer, in my opinion, of entirely comparable genius.1

Dame Margaret Scott, Vicki Attard and David McAllister in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet 1994. Photographer not identified

Dame Margaret Scott, Vicki Attard and David McAllister in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet 1994. Photographer not identified

I am aware that not everyone will relate to the way Edgecombe writes and analyses but, like Edgecombe, Dame Margaret Scott, who danced Clara the Elder in 1992, 1994 and 2000, also speaks of the slight nature of traditional productions and recognises the extent to which Murphy’s ballet recontextualises the traditional work into something with more narrative and choreographic depth. In an interview in 2000, in which she replies to a question about why some found the Murphy production hard to accept, Dame Margaret says:

In the crits in the 1892 production, there was one critic who said, ‘It’s a pity that [such] fine music is expended on nonsense unworthy of attention.’ And in the 1992 production here, one of the crits said: ‘One of the great achievements of this production is that Tchaikovsky’s music sounds as if it was written to a brief from Murphy.’

And then it goes on about the ballet itself. In 1892 the crit said, ‘Ballet is sliding downhill having lost its footing and moving away towards some kind of fragile and sugary Nutcracker.’ And then in Australia, ‘With Nutcracker the Australian Ballet came of age.’ I juxtaposed those two because it is relevant to the production.

I think if it had been called from the beginning, The Story of Clara, they would have accepted it. But it’s difficult to change the traditionalists. They still want the tutu ballet. And I mean, people don’t realise that the history of Nutcracker itself is a very chequered one. It only came into this popularity when the pantomimes died and it took the place of pantomimes because of its Christmas story. It became the cash cow, the Christmas entertainment. So to say it is popular because of a great love [is wrong] because a lot of people find it very dissatisfying.2

It is common knowledge that Murphy was at first hesitant to accept the commission from Maina Gielgud to create a new Nutcracker. In an interview in 1996 he says:

Maina Gielgud had asked me years ago to think about doing a Nutcracker and I’d rejected the idea on the basis that the story was silly, the piece was clichéd, and I’d never really seen one I liked.

But, thankfully, he eventually did accept the commission. He explains:

The clinch for me was the music, which I adore. So Kristian [Fredrikson] came over and we played the tape and I think somewhere in the course of that listening I was going ‘I can’t do a Nutcracker set in a postcard snowland, white Christmases and all that stuff. It doesn’t really mean anything. Maybe if you could do a Nutcracker set in arid Melbourne suburbia …’ And that was really the beginning of it.3

What we have with Murphy’s visionary production should be regarded, especially by those who write media notes, as a ballet of international reach. Save gumnuts for other less sophisticated things. But if some see a need to dumb down the work with a crazy name (in order to attract more people and bring in more money?) then perhaps they should rename the Australian Ballet the Ocker Ballet?

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2017

References

  1. All quotes from Professor Edgecombe are from Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, ‘Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker.’ Brolga, 17 (December 2002), pp. 23–32.
  2. Lee Christofis, ‘Coming of age. Retrieving history with Dame Margaret Scott and Valrene Tweedie OAM.’ Brolga, 13 (December 2000), pp. 44–58.
  3. All quotes from Murphy are from ‘Graeme Murphy. Humanity revealed’ in Michelle Potter, A passion for dance (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1997), pp. 61–77.

See also the text of a program article I wrote for the Australian Ballet’s 2009 season of Nutcracker. The story of Clara. As a concluding remark I wrote, ‘This is a Nutcracker to be loved and cherished. Its Australian connections are heart warming and a source of pride and pleasure. But the dramatic text is universal.‘ Here is the link.

Featured image: Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Nutcracker. The story of Clara. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in 'Nutcracker. The story of Clara.' The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

‘Nutcracker. The Story of Clara.’ The Australian Ballet

10 June 2017 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

A lot has been written over the years about Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker—how it is an Australianised version of a well-loved classic, how it looks back to momentous events in Australian dance history, and so on. I am one of those lucky people who has seen every one of the seasons of Murphy’s Nutcracker since its premiere in 1992 and now I prefer to write personal thoughts rather than explanatory notes.

Murphy’s Nutcracker never loses its magic, its beauty, its theatricality, and in fact each season shows something more, something I haven’t noticed before, something surprising and unexpected. But most of all, it continues to tell me that this is a triumph for Murphy and his collaborators.

What came across really strongly for me this time was the theatricality with which the links across generations were made. I have always loved that moment, very close to the beginning, when Clara the Child picks up the package Clara the Elder has dropped as she makes her way to her home. They look at each other intently and in a brief instant we realise that they have recognised each other in some way. The child is looking at herself as an older woman, the older woman sees herself as a child. The moment was beautifully handled by Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder and Hannah Sergi as Clara the Child.

Keramidas was, in fact, a surprise as Clara the Elder. She is still very much the dancer, with her long, slim limbs, beautifully poised head, and pure line through her whole body. She danced with scarcely a hint, in a movement sense that is, that her character was that of an ageing former ballerina. What was surprising was that her exceptional grace of movement distinguished her from her elderly friends in a way that I haven’t seen before. She was truly the ballerina rather than the soloist or corps de ballet dancer, and her collapse as she watched and remembered her career with her friends was all the more poignant.

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: ©Jeff Busby

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: ©Jeff Busby

I have always been fascinated, too, by the very moving moment in Act II when Clara the Ballerina (danced on this occasion by Dimity Azoury) watches as her lover is killed during a revolutionary battle in Russia. As she takes in the enormity of the situation, a series of scrims lift and we see Clara the Elder in her white nightgown clutching a photograph of her lover, the lover we have just seen shot. The two Claras are one and dance together sharing their pain and loss. With Keramidas and Sergi having established such a strong bond in that fleeting early moment, the emotive power of the cross generational links, which are at the heart of this ballet, came once more to the fore (this time between Keramidas and Azoury). The impact of this scene was heightened, too, by John Drummond Montgomery’s lighting for this moment—hazy down lights against a dark background of emptiness—and perhaps also because I was sitting further back than usual and could focus on an overall picture.

This time I also noticed more clearly the choreographic beauty of the snowflake scene. As snowflakes fall gently to the ground, disintegrating on the way down, so too did Murphy have his snowflakes drop to the floor moving first through a clearly articulated bend to the supporting leg so the landing from there was like a crumbling of the movement rather than a deliberate fall. Against this were sharp, icy stabs of movement as the dancers lifted a leg into the air and, at one point, a myriad of hands and arms moving up and down recalling a flurry of snow. At least that’s how I saw it: an enchanting display of snowy qualities!

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I also admired (more so than usual) Philippe Charluet’s film collage, especially those sections relating to the Russian Revolution. It has always been a treat to see how the film collage plays across the stage to add such a masterful context to this ballet, but this time the collage seemed even more pertinent to me, reading as I am at the moment a book that delves into the early life in Russia of George Balanchine.* And indeed Murphy’s inclusion of the two peasants in the picnic excursion that Clara and her friends enjoy before the Revolution begins in earnest had the same effect. The juxtaposition of wealth and privilege and lack of means to live comfortably was made clear with this small touch.

Azoury and Jarryd Madden danced strongly in the leading roles of Clara the Ballerina and the Beloved Officer, as did Andrew Wright as the Nutcracker Prince. Azoury has all the technique ready and waiting but just needs a little more feeling of freedom to make those curving, swirling lifts of the various pas de deux look as spectacular as they are. A little more time? Oh, and thank you to the new (to me) ‘older dancers’, friends of Clara the Elder. Graeme Hudson brought a certain gravitas and was it Terese Power who kept eating those chocolates and creating such a distinctive character?

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2017

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in the Imperial Ball scene from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

* Elizabeth Kendall, Balanchine and the lost Muse. Revolution and the making of a choreographer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Yanela Pinera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

‘The Nutcracker’. Queensland Ballet

23 November 2016, Canberra Theatre

Below is an expanded version of my Canberra Times review of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Across the world The Nutcracker is the quintessential Christmas experience. Children grow up knowing the story of Clara, and the Nutcracker Prince who takes her on a journey through a snowy forest to the Kingdom of Sweets. Those children (and their parents) look forward throughout the year to its annual return. It used to be a wonderful Christmas experience enjoyed each year by Australian dance audiences too, but that was long ago. Now we have occasional productions but none of the annual excitement. Recently, however, under the energetic and committed direction of artistic director, Li Cunxin, Queensland Ballet has begun to bring back the annual tradition of a Nutcracker Christmas. This year Canberra has been included as part of Queensland Ballet’s season. How lucky we are.

Every Nutcracker has its own character and every production has slight differences in how the story unfolds. Queensland Ballet’s production is by American-based choreographer Ben Stevenson, who currently directs Texas Ballet Theater in Fort Worth. It was Stevenson who, while directing Houston Ballet from 1976–2003, gave Li the chance to dance in the West when, while visiting Beijing, he offered Li a scholarship to appear in Houston. Since then Li has gone on from a major career as a dancer, including as a principal with the Australian Ballet, to his present position with Queensland Ballet.

Stevenson’s Nutcracker has a warm and homely atmosphere to its opening scenes. Children cross the stage in excitement and anticipation. Some drag their parents behind them. Some ride a sled. Some older people slip on the icy surface. They enter a house, complete with sparkling Christmas tree, where young and old mingle, laugh, eat and drink, dance, play (and have the odd argument), and exchange presents. Clara, youthfully and prettily danced by Mia Heathcote, is given a nutcracker doll by a mysterious visitor, Dr Drosselmeyer (Shane Wuerthner), and the story revolves around this toy. There is a strong comic element to the party scene, and there are more elderly characters than is often the case. Thomas Boyd’s set has a charmingly unpretentious and hospitable quality to it. It all makes for a genial gathering.

Mia Heathcote as Clara in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Mia Heathcote as Clara in The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

When the party is over and the guests have departed Clara is woken from her sleep by giant mice who attack her. A fight ensues and Clara kills the King Rat (Rian Thompson) with her shoe before her nutcracker toy is transformed into the Prince (Alexander Idaszak) and the journey to the Kingdom of Sweets begins. When she arrives, Clara is entertained by the inhabitants of the Kingdom, from the pastry cooks to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Yanela Piñera). Finally we find Clara and her toy nutcracker back at home. And we wonder if we, and Clara, have been dreaming?

Queensland Ballet tells the story clearly and smartly and the company dances this Nutcracker to perfection. The corps de ballet shone at every moment whether as snowflakes, life-sized toy soldiers, flowers, or other characters. The snowflakes were dazzling and the Snow Queen (Laura Hidalgo) danced an exceptional pas de deux with the Prince. Hidalgo had such a lyrical quality to her movement, and a beautifully fluid upper body. Every single movement was impressively defined, so much so that she looked as though she was dancing in slow motion. She was attentively partnered by Idaszak, who danced strongly but somehow gently and softly as well. But the flowers in the second act Waltz of the Flowers just amazed me with a series of pretty much perfect double pirouettes, moving across the stage in twos and performing in canon. They were led beautifully by Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos. And everyone looked as though they loved dancing—no ‘pasted on’ smiles here. Wonderful to see.

Of the other divertissements in the Kingdom of Sweets it was quite special to see Mother Ginger (Liam Geck). This variation rarely appears in other productions but is a delightful sequence in which several children appear from beneath the huge, hooped skirt of a very tall, motherly (if somewhat outrageous) figure. The Mirlitons remained as a pas de trois but danced, instead of the usual three ladies, by two ladies and a man (Tara Schaufuss, Neneka Yoshida and Zhi Fang). The Chinese Dance (D’Arcy Brazier and Zuquan Kou) had an unusual martial arts twist; Spanish was a pas de six with the dancers dressed (by Desmond Heeley) in stunning red and black outfits; and the Russian was a solo for Vito Bernasconi. The audience favourite, however, was the Arabian Dance with Lina Kim and Joel Woellner. Their sinuous pas de deux was highlighted by a fabulous lift with Kim upside down in splits being tilted backwards while in the air.

And the choreographic highlight, the pas de deux and variations of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince, was worth waiting for. I have admired Yanela Piñera in other recent Queensland Ballet productions and, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, she again showed her clean, strong technique. This time I especially admired her lovely little twists of the neck and a beautifully executed double turn in attitude that was done as a supported finger turn. She was partnered by Idaszak as the Prince, who once again was a most attentive partner.

There were so many charming, memorable moments, but in the end this evening stood out as a heart-warming performance of a much-loved ballet by a company that in recent years has gone from strength to strength. Despite funding issues, mentioned by Li Cunxin in his post-performance speech, Queensland Ballet stands tall and proud as a company that cares about the art form and its future. May they return many times to Canberra. We are ready and waiting.

Disclaimer: I had two family members in the children’s cast of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Michelle Potter, 25 November 2016

Featured image: Yanela Piñera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Yanela Pinera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

On a personal note: I was (rightly) required by The Canberra Times to include a disclaimer to my review as I had two grandsons performing in the children’s cast. But I have to say that I am thrilled that these two young boys will grow up knowing the excitement of The Nutcracker as a Christmas ballet, and knowing the full ballet rather than a version downsized for children!

The online Canberra Times review is at this link.

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

‘The Sleeping Beauty’. The Australian Ballet

15 September 2015, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne

On a day when Australia got a new Prime Minister, dance-goers also got a new production of The Sleeping Beauty from David McAllister and the Australian Ballet, with McAllister being credited with ‘Production and additional choreography’. I don’t know how our new PM will fare but, as for Beauty, there was good and not so good.

The good things first. The narrative flows clearly and smoothly. Bringing in Lucas Jervies as dramaturg clearly paid dividends, especially as this Beauty is a little different from what many of us have become used to watching. Act II, for example, is somewhat changed from other productions, of which more later. And Carabosse is ‘the ancient fairy of Wisdom’ according to program notes, so she doesn’t display as much evil intent as we have seen in previous productions, although of course she is furious at being left off the invitation list to Aurora’s christening party.

Which brings me to the second good thing. Lynette Wills as Carabosse is outstanding, just as she was as the Godmother in Cinderella.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Wills is powerful yet restrained. Nothing is overplayed and yet we sense her presence and her impact on the unfolding story. And all this despite having a very strangely dressed entourage of rats who wear giant puppet-like heads and sport collars and black bow ties.

After that there isn’t much else that I found exhilarating. Benedicte Bemet as the Fairy of Musicality gave a distinctive interpretation to this role and brought a gorgeously lively quality to her exceptional technical capacity. Kevin Jackson as Prince Desiré made every effort to appear human. His two solos in Act II were mostly well performed, and there were moments when, as he looked at the spirit of Aurora, which the Lilac Fairy has conjured up in this Act, he sent shivers down my spine, such was his look of longing.

As for the Bluebird and Princess Florine, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo could scarcely be faulted technically. Guo’s beats and turns are astonishing, as I have said many times before. But how I missed the fluttering hands that are so often part of the choreography for Princess Florine. She is meant to be listening to the Bluebird who is teaching her how to fly, and the listening bit was all there. But in other versions, beautiful fluttering movements of the hands show her attempts to fly, to put into practice what she is hearing. This fluttering has been part of the Australian heritage of Beauty for decades. Let’s be proud of our heritage. Why leave it out now even if it is (maybe) an addition from the era of Soviet realism?

Which brings up the question of the other fairy tale characters who usually appear at the wedding of Aurora and her Prince. It was a lovely touch to include various fairy tale characters, properly disguised but recognisable, in Act II, which in McAllister’s production is a kind of picnic rather than a straight out hunting party, with the Prince joining in the excursion carrying his book of fairy tales. But what happened to the variations of Puss in Boots and the White Cat and Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Act III? If these characters appear, somewhat in disguise, in Act II why do they have such a tiny role in Act III (and yet turn up in the final mazurka as if they had danced major parts)? It doesn’t make sense to me to leave out their pas de deux and variations. Where was the dramaturg at this point? Apart from anything else they are also part of our Sleeping Beauty heritage and I missed them.

Lana Jones as Aurora missed the youthfulness that I think gives the early part of Act I so much of its charm. She looked beautifully elegant and performed everything with aplomb, but she wasn’t a sixteen year old princess. The grand pas de deux, despite being soundly performed, lacked the excitement that this part of Act III should bring.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Other choreographic features, especially in Act II, seemed to me to be a little too close to parts of Swan Lake and Nutcracker. The woodland nymphs, who inhabit the overgrown forest in Act II, often split into small groups, link hands à la Four Little Swans, and perform various piqué-style movements. And there is a scene, also in Act II, where Carabosse’s rats fight with the Prince in an attempt to extract from him the key that will open the glass-domed casket in which Aurora has slept for 100 years. Shades of a certain part of Nutcracker?

Gabriela Tylesova’s designs for costumes and set are extraordinarily lavish and, for me, they are the most curious mixture of Baroque extravagance and Rococo excess, with a Louis XIV party thrown in at the end, which occasionally looked like Carnevale in Venice, complete with a Tiepolo-style ceiling as an added attraction. And why did those three massive chandeliers start on the floor and majestically rise to the ceiling at the beginning of Act III? The audience greeted this strange chandelier behaviour with applause, although I’m not sure why. And what was the most disappointing feature of all this excess across the prologue and three acts? The dancing became secondary to the visual appearance.

Tylesova’s choice of colours for her costumes was also unattractive to my eyes. It shouted excess once again. As for those large wings worn by the fairies, they just got in the way of the dancers’ line, which is such an important part of the ballet technique we associate with Petipa and classicism.

In a feature published in the September 2015 issue of Vogue Australia, McAllister is quoted as saying: ‘With big classics like Sleeping Beauty, I really believe it’s around the staging, the look of it.’ Well, yes, he is right that the staging is important in a narrative ballet. But when the staging is such that it overwhelms the dancing it simply doesn’t work.

The audience was wildly enthusiastic as the curtain went down amid much gold, including shimmering gold leaf floating in the air, and a huge gold sun that descended over the Tiepolo ceiling. I went home dejected that such a beautiful ballet could be turned into an event like some kind of football grand final. The dancing was lost in a world of visual excess and technical invention.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty', 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 17 September 2015

Featured image: Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

‘The Nutcracker’ on film. The Australian Ballet

It was a pleasure to be able to see Peter Wright’s Nutcracker once again, this time on film danced by the Australian Ballet and recorded in Melbourne on 17 September 2014. It was shown on ABC-TV on Christmas Eve and is due to be released on DVD by the ABC in early January.

The absolute star was Benedicte Bemet as Clara and I regret not having had the opportunity to see her on stage. She commanded the role from beginning to end, never losing strength or characterisation. She showed off a wonderfully fluid technique and I especially loved her use of épaulement, her gorgeous carriage of the head, those beautiful arabesques that seemed to soar upwards, and the way she always, but always, stepped forward onto a turned out foot. Those technical matters came as if they were second nature and she looked every inch the dancer from start to finish. And she showed her versatility as a performer in Act II as she joined in all the dances, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and so forth, according to Peter Wright’s vision for the role.

Bendicte Bemet and artists of the Australian Ballet in 'The Nutcracker', 2014. Photo Jeff Busby

Benedicte Bemet as Clara with artists of the Australian Ballet in The Nutcracker, 2014. Photo Jeff Busby

Ingrid Gow was also impressive as Clara’s mother where I could not help but notice how expressively she used her arms, especially in her dance with Clara’s father (Brett Simon). Andrew Killian made his presence felt as the occasionally frightening Drosselmeyer in Act I, an attitude he tempered beautifully with something more gentle in Act II as he involved Clara in the action.

But looking from a different perspective, one of the most interesting features of this recording was the way the lighting looked so different from what I remember from the Sydney performance I saw. Gone were the garish colours of that Act II set and what appears to have been a more subdued approach to the lighting design in fact made the set look quite beautiful at times. With what were always carefully selected close-up shots, it was possible to see elements of the set highlighted. Not having always to see the entire set gave a quite different impression. The downside, however, was that often the darker scenes, especially in Act I and in the final scene when Clara finds herself again by her family Christmas tree, were often scarcely visible.

The grand pas de deux was danced on this occasion by Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson and, unlike my previous experience, there was indeed a real connection between this Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Jackson’s partnering was impeccable—those shoulder lifts, followed by a full circle swirl before Eastoe was lowered into a fish dive, were just wonderful. Eastoe’s command of the choreography was beyond question and her every movement was beautifully and clearly articulated. Together they danced as one.

But I was still a little disappointed. I wanted this pas de deux to look like more than just a lovely dance. It still seemed to lack excitement, daring and the power to thrill. I’m not sure what Peter Wright thinks the pas de deux should look like. I wondered whether in his version he just wanted it to be a lovely part of a lovely story? I wanted it also to be a show piece with the sense of grandeur that goes with the great classical tradition. I wanted it to be more than just a part of the storyline. It was an exquisite pas de deux but it wasn’t a ‘grand’ one for me.

Nevertheless this Nutcracker remains a joy to watch and the DVD (details at this link) will be a worthy addition to any ballet collection.

Michelle Potter, 29 December 2015

‘The Nutcracker’: The Australian Ballet

6 December 2014 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There is a lot to like in Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet’s final show for 2015. But once again the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre showed its inadequacies as an opera/ballet venue. What a squash it was at times!

I admired in particular the logic that Wright has introduced into the story, including the expanded role played by Drosselmeyer, admirably performed by Rudy Hawkes whose sense of drama and onstage presence in Act I was exceptional. I also admired that elements in the mysterious happenings after midnight in Act I (scene ii, although not referred to as such in the synopsis) are prefigured earlier in the unfolding of the story. And I enjoyed too that Clara takes on an active part in Act II.

Most of John F Macfarlane’s costumes are a delight to the eye, especially that red dress worn by Clara’s mother, and the Jack-in-the-box costume with pants that look like they are made from expandable metal or wire. I’m not sure though about that musk-stick-pink doublet worn by the Prince in the Act II pas de deux—it did nothing to add a princely look, although I guess it was appropriately lolly-like. Macfarlane’s sets for Act I are also attractive, but those over-decorative elements in the Act II set, including a large bright sun and those huge, red flowers do not sit well with the pink marble columns, although the columns themselves are lovely. Perhaps the Act II set looks better on a bigger stage?

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'The Nutcracker', 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Nutcracker, 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

In the performance I saw, Karen Nanasca danced Clara and was impressive from the first moment she appeared. Her charm and sense of wonder at what was happening as the ballet progressed were appropriately youthful and quite beautiful. She has such lovely arms and a technique that just needs a little more strength to carry her through some of the more difficult movements. The other standout was Thomas Palmer, a young Sydney-based dance student who played the part of Fritz, Clara’s little brother. Apart from the fact that he danced well, his acting and his ability to engage with the audience were superb. In the cameo roles of the Grandmother and Grandfather, Kathleen Geldard and Colin Peasley were a delight and all in all the dancing throughout Act I was first-rate. Benedicte Bemet and Christiano Martino made a wonderful Columbine and Harlequin, while Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli danced with panache as the Jack-in-the-box and Drosselmeyer’s assistant respectively.

Act II, however, was a different matter. Sadly, what should be the highlight—the grand pas de deux—was a bit of a let down. I felt there was no emotion between Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Miwako Kubota as the Sugar Plum Fairy, although Jackson was trying to make something happen. But there was no sense of excitement, no sense of the thrill and the splendour of the choreography. Very frustrating. There were also some unsettling moments, especially in the Russian and the Arabian Dances when the gentlemen seemed to stumble around a few too many times. And there is no excuse for ribbons on pointe shoes to come untucked as they did, very obviously, on the shoes of one dancer.

Despite these grumbles a traditional-style Nutcracker is always a treat at Christmas time. At least in the first act I was transported. It was lovely too to see a lot of children in the audience, including one behind me who whispered loudly to her parents when the toy nutcracker’s head was ripped off and the doll was lying on the floor in two pieces,  ‘Oh, I hope he will be all right’.

Michelle Potter, 7 November 2014

Dance diary. November 2014

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards: Dance 2014

It was a slow year for local, professional dance in the ACT, especially after the very full dance calendar the city had during its centenary year, 2013. The dance panel of the Canberra Critics’ Circle offered only one dance award for 2014. It went to James Batchelor for his performance installation Island.

James Batchelor

Portrait of James Batchelor, c. 2013

During the Circle’s plenary session, at which nominations in individual categories are put forward to the whole group for discussion, a member of the circle questioned me about whether James should or should not be considered a Canberra artist given his strong links with the Melbourne dance scene. It was a good question and one I had discussed with Batchelor earlier in 2014. His reply was:

I left Canberra to go to university in Melbourne, but I don’t see that that makes me any less of a Canberran. I am in just my second year out from university and, as I establish my practice, I live a transient lifestyle. Recently I have worked all around Australia and in France, Thailand and the United Kingdom. But I am involved in a number of projects in Canberra this year and I definitely intend to employ my practice here in Canberra.

Independent artists working in dance are, as a matter of necessity, almost always peripatetic.

Read more about Batchelor’s work in Canberra at this tag, in my Canberra Times story at this link, and in my review of QL2’s Boundless program at this link.

  • Dimity Azoury: Telstra Ballet Dancer Award, 2014

It was a pleasure to learn that Dimity Azoury, former pupil of Canberra dance teacher Kim Harvey, received the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award for 2014. A profile of Azoury, currently a coryphée with the Australian Ballet, will be coming to this website shortly.

Dimity Azoury in 'Paquita', the Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury in Paquita, the Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

  • Robert Ray’s Nutcracker

Teacher and choreographer Robert Ray tells me he has headed to New York to stage his Nutcracker for students from the Joffrey Ballet School with guest artists from the Joffrey Concert Group. His production of Nutcracker attracted my attention while I was writing Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance. To quote from the book:

In 1985 Maggie had commissioned Ray to create a new version of the ever popular Christmas classic, The Nutcracker. It was a milestone in the School’s history being the first full-length ballet made especially for the School and was designed especially for students to perform and their end of year graduation. It was also a move to have a cost efficient work for the School, one that could be repeated over the years with roles that would suit students from across all levels of training.

‘It was a wonderful training ballet because the first year students could take roles like the mice and the soldiers, the second year students could dance the individual solo roles and the third years could aspire to the pas de deux and the principal roles’, Maggie suggests. ‘And Robert’s choreography was demanding. The students would compete for roles in it. We performed it for five consecutive years.

So now Joffrey Ballet School has taken advantage of this work and Ray believes it is likely to become a permanent fixture on the Joffrey Christmas calendar.

  • Hot to Trot: Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap in Canberra has just shown its sixteenth production of Hot to Trot, a program in which young dancers try their hand at choreography, and occasionally dance on film. Probably the most intriguing piece on the program of eight short dances and one film (also short) was Inside Out by Aden Hamilton. Hamilton is in Year Five at Telopea Park Primary School and, for someone so young, his duet, which he performed with Caroline de Wan, was astonishingly mature and complete in its structure. Someone to watch.

  • Press for November

‘Bold effort but unwoven threads.’ Review of Kathrada 50/25, Liz Lea. The Canberra Times, 4 November 2014, p. 6.  Online.

‘Local links in national awards.’ Report on the Australian Dance Awards 2014. The Canberra Times, 10 November 2014, pp. 10–11. Online.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2014

Telstra Ballet in the Park. The Australian Ballet in Canberra

This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times

Autumn in Canberra is usually the best of seasons. March 2012 has, however, been marked by excessive rain and a performance was touch and go on 16 March when the Australian Ballet arrived bringing its Telstra Ballet in the Park Gala to the city. But the company had not performed in Canberra for several years so people came in droves to Commonwealth Park for the performance, which was scheduled as part of the annual Canberra Festival. Dressed in rainwear, they sat under their umbrellas, picnicking regardless, and waiting. About five minutes before the show was due to start, the rain stopped, the umbrellas went down and the very large audience was treated to a series of ballet bonbons showcasing some of the company’s top dancers.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, dashingly costumed in red, black and gold, opened the evening with Petal Miller-Ashmole’s pas de deux, La Favorita. Both Jones and Gaudiello have strong, sure techniques―those double fouettés from Jones were stunning―and cover the stage majestically with their movements. It was a joy to watch them dance together. They also both have great onstage personalities and what made this item the stand-out of the evening for me was their ability to project those personalities off the stage and into the audience. We weren’t seated in a space enclosed by walls and a roof and the extent of the ‘auditorium’ was vast, so being able to project in such a situation was some feat and not achieved to the same extent by others during the evening.

Another highlight was Rachel Rawlins and Ty King-Wall dancing the pas de deux from Giselle Act II. Rawlins is such a mature artist and captured beautifully the ethereal qualities of Giselle, as she danced to keep her one true love alive until dawn. Rawlins looks as though the balletic vocabulary is such a part of her very being that it is completely effortless, even during those demanding moments in Giselle’s variation where she travels backwards, upstage, executing a series of fast beats and relevés. King-Wall partnered her elegantly and his variation showed off his own fine beaten steps and elevation.

I was also impressed by Juliet Burnett and Andrew Killian who danced the pas de deux from Nutcracker. Burnett was poised and controlled in one of the most classical of pas de deux. Her adagio movements unfolded with an elegance and calm sense of control and she allowed us to see the structure of every développé, every arabesque. Killian was a suitably caring cavalier and danced his solos with great style.

We also saw the rising star of the company, Chengwu Guo, in two items, the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Le Corsaire. While Chengwu’s turns and jumps were spectacular, I missed the sexuality that more mature performers are able to bring to these works. There were strong flourishes every so often from Chengwu but there was a kind of restraint in the upper body rather than what I think the roles demand, the appearance of throwing caution to the wind in a display of unbridled passion. Chengwu partnered Reiko Hombo in Don Quixote and Miwako Kubota in Corsaire.

Also on the program was the Act III pas de trois from Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake with Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Amy Harris. It was especially interesting to see Murphy’s contemporary choreography on a program that consisted of works in an older classical style. The Murphy style stood up beautifully although this pas de trois generally suffered from being seen out of the context of the complete ballet and without the set, which on reflection adds a brooding quality to the unfolding drama of this particular moment in the work.

Completing the program were the pas de deux from Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace, smoothly danced by Amber Scott and Adam Bull, and excerpts from La Baydère where Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello returned as Nikiya and Solor and in which the three variations were danced by Hombo, Harris and Dimity Azoury.
Artists of the Australian Ballet. Telstra Ballet in the Park

Artists of the Australian Ballet in an excerpt from ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ from La Bayadère, 2012. Photo: William Hall. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Canberra region audiences used to see the Australian Ballet once a year but a decision, an unpopular one in the eyes of audiences, was made some years ago now to remove Canberra from the touring schedule. The size of the audience for the Telstra event, which took place in less than ideal weather conditions, seems to me to be a clear signal to the Australian Ballet that it is time to return to the national capital on a more regular basis. The announcement that Garry Stewart and an unnamed collaborative team will make a new work for Canberra’s centenary in 2013 is a start.

Michelle Potter, 20 March 2012

George Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker’. New York City Ballet on film

New York does December in its own inimitable way and one annual and memorable event is a season of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker performed at Lincoln Center by New York City Ballet. This year, however, you didn’t have to be in New York to see the production. It was filmed live on 13 December and relayed in a high definition cinema broadcast across the United States. Just before Christmas it was screened in movie houses in Britain, Austria, Spain, Portugal and Australia.

While we all know that there’s nothing like being there, I loved the way this Nutcracker was so carefully filmed, especially Act I. I even liked the way the camera selected close-ups and never felt I was missing out on the action by having a close-up cut into the full stage view. I mostly liked the views shot from a side box too, especially in the Snowflakes scene where a high view accentuated the enclosed space of the snow-covered forest without taking anything away from the dancing. From a filmic point of view, Act II was probably less successful. But I suspect that this had something to do with Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s somewhat overwrought set of sweets and candies. Its visual complexities detract from the dancing at the best of times and, when seen on screen, the limitations of the two dimensionality of the medium are accentuated. However, I never once wished it had been shot in 3D!

One aspect of Balanchine’s version that I find especially enjoyable is the way in which children are incorporated into the production and the way the adult performers never treat them as anything but an integral part of the narrative. In Act I the children dance with the adults as well as with each other and have roles as soldiers, while in Act II they have their own roles as angels and as the children of Mother Ginger. In Act II they dance in the opening section and in the coda with all the panache of their adult counterparts. The coda in particular is quite fast but they are in there, totally unfazed and dancing beautifully.

The roles of Fritz and Marie, or Clara as we more commonly know her counterpart in Australia, are also children’s roles, rather than roles for smaller company members as often happens. The children from the School of American Ballet, who fill all the children’s roles, are professionals-in-training and it is hard to fault the way they conduct themselves on stage. In the role of Fritz, Maximilian Brooking Lendegger was captivatingly naughty and almost stole the show from the rather more placid and appropriately well-mannered Colby Clark as the princely child hero and nephew of Herr Drosselmeier. Marie was danced by a very composed Fiona Brennan. I was also mesmerised by a dark- haired child aged about eight, the youngest (or at least smallest in height) of the Polichinelles who emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirt in Act II. She grabbed my attention immediately with her innate understanding of how to use the space around her to achieve maximum effect from her movements.

Of the adult performers Megan Fairchild danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and was partnered by Joaquin De Luz: lovely techniques both of them but on this occasion not much of the radiance that should accompany these roles. They are after all the roles of a prima ballerina and a premier danseur. The standout performers among the adults were Teresa Reichlen as a glamorously slinky Coffee, Tiler Peck as the leading Marzipan (in a tutu that I found clumsy and unattractive though) and Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop, the leading dancer in the Waltz of the Flowers. Bouder’s technical skills were electrifying. In Act I Adam Hendrickson gave a strong performance as Herr Drosselmeier. He captured every bit of the fantasy and mystery of this character.

The film was introduced by Kelly Ripa, who hosts a popular television series in the United States, and she also hosted several backstage interviews during the intermission. They included some interviews with excited child performers and a discussion of some of the technical tricks asociated with the production – the Christmas tree that grows during the transformation scene, for example. They were all interesting, even fascinating at times, but I could easily have done without some of Ripa’s comments. They were no doubt meant to appeal but often dumbed down what was happening.

Years ago now the American dance writer Edwin Denby remarked of Balanchine’s take on Nutcracker: ‘It’s Balanchine’s Oklahoma!’ This particular production, with sets by Ter-Arutunian and costumes by Karinska, dates back to 1964 and it is indeed a very American production, right down to its flying, reindeer-drawn sleigh that carries Marie and her Prince across the stage in the closing scene. At Christmas its glitz, even when it’s a little over the top and even when Ripa behaves a little too ingenuously, is irresistible.

Michelle Potter, 27 December 2011

A clip on YouTube is brief and promotional (but professionally shot) and gives an overview of what the production is like.

Season’s Greetings, 2011

high-road-to-taosTo all those who have visited this site over the past year, and especially to those who have contributed what I have referred to elsewhere as ‘refreshingly honest’ comments, I wish a very happy holiday season.

A Christmas production of Nutcracker was always a much anticipated part of my childhood and recollections of Elaine Haxton’s designs for the old Borovansky production (reused in the early Australian Ballet production) surfaced a few years ago during a December drive through, of all places, the Kit Carson National Forest in New Mexico. I hope you enjoy the juxtaposition of images, despite the obvious differences in lighting and location!
snowflakes-nutcracker-2

‘Snowflakes’ in the Borovansky Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, ca. 1957. Photo: Walter Stringer. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia

I also recently came across an interview with Elaine Haxton recorded by fellow artist James Gleeson in 1978 and held by the National Gallery of Australia. Her discussion of the work of the designer in the 1950s is worth reading I think.

I look forward to your visits and comments in 2012.

Michelle Potter, 18 December 2011