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.

‘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

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

‘The Nutcracker’: the Australian Ballet

There was a time when Christmas in Sydney without a production of The Nutcracker was unimaginable. The ballet attracts a festive audience, there is no doubt about it. So it is hardly a surprise that the Australian Ballet’s staging of Peter Wright’s Nutcracker as its final offering for the 2010 Sydney season was a total sell-out.

This Nutcracker does not strive too hard for psychological explanations or modernisations and the production has a clear and very welcome logic to it. Nothing happens in the transformation scene, when the Christmas tree grows, mice (rats I think in this production?) emerge and engage in a fight in which they are ultimately the losers, and Clara’s Christmas gift of a nutcracker doll turns into a handsome prince, which is not prefigured in some way in the party scene. The second act too has more logic than usual. Clara’s involvement with the dances is a welcome addition, as is her transformation—she is an aspiring dancer in this production—into the Sugar Plum Fairy. While the ballet still of course requires suspension of belief, there is a coherence that is unusual in a staging that does not diverge markedly from the traditional storyline.

The production was also pleasing from a technical point of view. And by this I mean that for once there were no loud bangs and crashes from backstage as scenery was moved in and out. I have winced more than once throughout the 2010 season at noises off stage that were never meant to be heard in the auditorium.

There was also some great dancing, and what a treat that is! A total standout was Madeleine Eastoe as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She was technically assured, her feet sparkled and there was such a delicious flow of movement in her torso as her spine stretched upwards through to her beautifully poised head. She gave such light and shade to the choreography with some unexpected changes of pace in her movements. She was every inch the ballerina—commanding but never overbearingly so. And what a magnificent, beautifully placed and perfectly executed diagonal of fouettés at the beginning of the coda!

As for her partner, Yosvani Ramos, he was sadly encumbered by a jacket in a startling shade of lolly pink—very unbecoming I thought. And to make matters worse the neckline seemed quite stiff and much too high for him. It made him look as though he had an incredibly short neck—not good when he is not the tallest of dancers in the first place. It quite detracted from some really nice dancing on his part.

Reiko Hombo danced the role of Clara and acquitted herself well showing absolute engagement with the role. Leanne Stojmenov as the Rose Fairy could scarcely put a foot wrong. The choreography here demands a dancer with a strong sense of classical order and in such situations Stojmenov always displays a natural ability and an exceptional level of expertise. Daniel Gaudiello had a small role in the first act as Drosselmeyer’s assistant. With his ability to realise a character, his powerful presence on stage and his technical prowess, especially when it comes to beaten steps and steps of elevation, Gaudiello turned this role into something exceptional and quite idiosyncratic. There were also fine performances from Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer and Tzu-Chao Chou as the Jack-in-the-Box

There were moments when I found the costume and set design by John F. Macfarlane overbearing and fussy. Apart from wishing that the Prince’s pink jacket was not quite so inelegant, I also craved a little more subtlety in the set for Act II, which suffered in my opinion from a surfeit of colourful motifs including two different kinds of very large flowers, a stylised (anthropomorphised) sun and a bunch of swirly ribbons. But this Nutcracker is a Christmas treat to delight young and old alike and closed the Australian Ballet’s 2010 season on a high note.

Michelle Potter, 12 December 2010

Newcomers to Graeme Murphy’s ‘Nutcracker’

Nutcracker: The Australian Ballet, Sydney and Melbourne, 2009

The 2009 season of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: the story of Clara has all but convinced me that this work is the closest thing we have in Australia to a dance masterpiece. It is, like all great works of art, a very giving work. It continues to reveal new layers of meaning with each viewing, and it continues to reveal those layers at every level—dramaturgically and choreographically as well as in terms of its visual impact and historical underpinnings. Now we are also in the fortunate position of having had this ballet staged by the Australian Ballet in four separate seasons over seventeen years. Its inaugural season in 1992 was followed by restagings in 1994 and 2000. So, in 2009 there is an opportunity to reflect on how this ballet has grown and been interpreted over those seasons.

Two newcomers to the ballet stood out in this 2009 season.

At the centre of the work is the character of Clara the Elder, a now-retired elderly woman who is still in her heart a dancer. It is her story we watch unfolding before us, her destiny and ultimately her death. In the 2009 season Marilyn Jones and Ai-Gul Gaisina, both now in their late sixties, were cast to alternate in this important role. For those of us who had watched the two original Elder Claras—Dame Margaret Scott and Valrene Tweedie—it was hard to imagine that anyone could bring such depth of characterisation to the role as these two did. But Gaisina, Russian-born and Russian-trained, seemed as though she was born to dance the role. She had all the elegance of a ballerina, which indeed she was when at the height of her career. There was also a certain flamboyance in the flick of a wrist or a tilt of the head that gave her dancing a particularly Russian flavour. This, combined with a special way of interacting with her fellow cast members so that eyes met eyes and looking meant seeing, made her performance a moving and utterly believable one. She also imbued the role with an edge of humour. It was quite understated and perhaps it was more a taking of pleasure in the role than anything else. But it was clearly there and very noticeable in Act I as she entertained her Russian émigré friends. It allowed us to sense that we were watching a real life story unfold before us.

Ai-Gul Gaisina, 'Nutcracker' Act 1. Photo: Branco Gaica, 2009
Ai-Gul Gaisina, Nutcracker Act 1. Photo:  Branco Gaica, 2009

The other outstanding performance in the casts I saw came from Leanne Stojmenov as Clara the Ballerina. Stojmenov is now fulfilling the promise that marked her performances with West Australian Ballet as a new and very young member of the company in 1999 and 2000. She has such a strong and sure technique and handled the intricacies of Murphy’s choreography with aplomb and apparent ease. Her grand pas de deux with Marc Cassidy was thrilling and in the pas de deux between Clara and her Beloved Officer, although partnered very shakily by Yosvani Ramos, Stojmenov showed her growing ability to create dramatic tension through the use of the whole body. It augurs well for her future.

It is incredibly satisfying to have Murphy’s Nutcracker return to the stage. It is one of the great treasures of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire and a work that allows us the rare pleasure of being able to look back at an Australian work and compare and contrast.

Michelle Potter, 9 June 2009  

Image of Ai-Gul Gaisina courtesy of the Australian Ballet