I have a confession to make.
I don’t get ballet. I get pretty dresses and the elegant curve of the human body and the heroic athleticism, but the whole package — body stockings, funny walks, buns — has never quite captivated me. That is, until now.
Last night I took my eldest daughter to see the Australian Ballet’s revival of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: the Story of Clara. It reimagines Tchaikovsky’s Christmas pageant, The Nutcracker, as a biography of Clara, born in pre-Revolutionary Russia, who becomes prima ballerina of the Imperial Ballet before becoming caught up in the chaotic whirl of war. Clara falls in love, loses her lover, becomes a star, travels the world, and ends her journey, surrounded by friends and memories, in suburban Melbourne.
Murphy, who came up with the concept in collaboration with the brilliant set and costume designer Kristian Fredrickson, has spoken about the problems he perceives in Tchaikovsky’s original. “Nutcracker is a sort of no-story,” he says in discussion with music director and chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon. “There isn’t a real development of character. It’s quite abstract.”
He makes no apologies for rethinking a much-loved classic and, although some traditionalists might disagree, I don’t think he needs to. For what he has created (or what the team has created, for Murphy is a collaborative choreographer, working with his creative associate Janet Vernon and the dancers themselves) is, to me, a love letter to ballet. If there was ever a show to convince a non-believer of the power of ballet, this is it.
From the opening scene, where the elderly friends of Clara, who come in all shapes and sizes, to the ballet academy scene, where a studio full of petites leotardinas go through their paces, to the triumphant world tour, you see the expressive range of ballet. Clara’s friends, a little tiddly, a little stiff, are so full of joy and elegance as they dance up a storm. The children’s class is unsentimental and unexpectedly moving. The final curtain call is all that ballet should be — the lights, the sequins, the magnificent leaps and spins — but, in a brilliant coup de theatre, performed facing the back of the stage, a dancer’s view, as it were. Yes. A dancer’s view. This is a production which makes an overwhelmingly powerful case for the art form. OK ballet. You got me.
Nutcracker – The Story of Clara plays at the Sydney Opera House until 20 May, then at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, from 2-10 June.
A quick reminder to visit my book project, Sanctuary, a pictorial history of the Dartington International Summer School of Music, and pledge your support. Together we can make this book happen!