Twenty-five years after it debuted, Graeme Murphy's Australian version of the Nutcracker is both an artistic triumph and a crowdpleaser
When Graeme Murphy first put on his revamped version of beloved classic The Nutcracker in 1992, he received hate mail. Ditching the traditional story of sugar and spice and all things nice, Murphy had introduced a grittier tale exploring the Russian Revolution and the birth of ballet in Australia – and not everyone was best pleased.
War, death, and disappointment – as well as a good dose of nostalgia for bygone times – displaced frothy dreams around the Christmas tree. It was a bold move. Yet 25 years on, Murphy’s Nutcracker continues to crackle with electricity.
Nutcracker: The Story of Clara opens on a hot Christmas Eve in 1950s Melbourne. As children bicker outside, elderly Russian émigré Clara (a graceful Ai-Gul Gaisina) welcomes friends into her modest home for the festivities. Hearing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on her old radio, she thinks back to her years as a star at the Imperial Ballet.
Later that night, falling into a fitful sleep, Clara hallucinates about her youth. The audience meets the young Clara (the adorable Amelia Soh) as she watches snow fall in St Petersburg and strives for excellence in her ballet class. Growing into a young woman (Leanne Stojmenov), Clara charms the court at the imperial ball and falls deeply in love with a young officer. When he dies in the 1917 revolution, she flees to tour the world, eventually ending up in Australia.
Murphy conceived the concept of The Story of Clara with the late Kristian Fredrikson, a long term collaborator, and his set and costume designs still dazzle. We are transported from the soggy heat of Melbourne, and Clara’s tumbledown two-storey house, with its retro lime green kitchen, to her dressing room at the Imperial Ballet, where she wraps herself in a luxurious silk kimono and bats off the advances of admirers bestowing her with expensive gifts.
References to the original ballet also sneak in. Most notably, giant dancing rats who, in a nightmarish twist, are dressed as Bolsheviks in greatcoats. But if Russia features prominently, so does Australia: this is a celebration, after all, of the Ballets Russes, whose influence on Australian dance was profound. It’s also a celebration of a very different kind of Christmas: the steamy sweat of the Southern Hemisphere.
Navigating this all is a first rate cast. This is a work that demands that performers not just dance, but act too. Stojmenov is expectant, sweet, and vivacious as Clara and her pas de deux with Kevin Jackson in the role of the officer is filled with desire. Jackson’s part as the romantic interest is less fully realised, but he is brilliant as the kindly, if flustered and somewhat awkward doctor, who visits the older Clara as she lies dying. Then there’s Gaisina. It’s not often that you see older bodies in an art form obsessed with physical perfection. But Gaisina, in a role originally written for Dame Margaret Scott, founding director of the Australian Ballet School, commands the stage with a sense of sage respect.
Yes The Story of Clara has show-stopping costumes and choreography (the Egyptian dance is particularly mesmerising). But it is its ability to delve deeper into more thoughtful moments, as a piece of theatre might do, that sets it apart. Like the Russian matryoshka dolls that feature prominently, layers upon layers of character and plot are peeled away. Most moving is the depiction of a ballerina beyond the lights that define her: at a picnic with her lover, heady with hopes; as the curtain falls on her final dance; and as an elderly woman, looking back on her life, seeped with yearning.