The Australian Ballet has launched a new, communally written blog, Behind Ballet. It hasn’t really settled yet, and some of the writing is very amusing in its earnestness. But the variety of themes and diversity of voices is excellent. More important, today’s post, “Universal Genius: How Tchaikovsky became Australian”, reminded me that I had to put my ticket for Nutcracker in my bag for tomorrow!
I saw Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker when it was premiered in 1992. I have two vivid memories from it all. First was seeing the season brochure or perhaps a feature article explaining that Murphy was going to create an “Australian Nutcracker”.
I admired Murphy’s work tremendously – Beyond Twelve was a long-standing favourite, for example – but at that news my heart sank. Terrible visions came to mind of cringe-making attempts to Australian-ise classic masterpieces such as Carnival of the Animals, attempts that always seemed to be trying too hard and going in too strongly for some overtly “Aussie” flavour. So of course I anticipated the worst. And hence came one of the most delightful evenings I’ve ever had in the theatre, as Murphy’s Nutcracker demolished my fears and prejudices.
One of the factors behind the success of this version is that the original libretto is in many ways quite weak and it lacks the satisfying dramatic arc of Swan Lake or even Sleeping Beauty. The essence of the action is all over by the end of Act I and Act II becomes a pretext for spectacle and a lot of pretty dancing. Then there’s the mismatch in the relative importance of the dramatic leads versus the real (dancing) leads. Which is a long way of saying that there is room for dramaturgical improvement on the original. And Murphy achieved this by constructing an ingenious story line that makes its logical way through Tchaikovsky’s music.
But really, what I loved most about the Murphy Nutcracker was the brilliance with which it injected the Australian flavour. He avoids all clichés with the masterly exception of the Hills Hoist. (A prefiguring of the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony perhaps?) And instead he’s dug down for some genuine Australian ties to this Russian ballet and found them in the touring De Basil Ballets Russes and the Borovansky company, who gave this country a taste for what the Australian Ballet does now. The connections all made perfect sense and they map beautifully onto the original drama of the music. And – very important – there’s no loss of fantasy or magic.
What’s bookmarked on my DVD of this? Among other things:
The battle with the rats. These are the Bolsheviks to Clara’s White Russian officer, but they are still rats and in costuming and movement they are by far the most fearsome rats I’ve seen in a Nutcracker production anywhere.
The tai chi scene. This is remarkable for being danced in a slow-motion silence for a good minute or so. Only when it’s over do the touring dancers come bustling through in their rickshaw to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s Chinese Dance (Tea): foreigners bringing foreign impressions.
But these are just clevernesses. The thing I can’t “bookmark” is the overall emotional impact of Murphy’s retelling – convincing and moving in every way, nostalgia without sentimentality. Tchaikovsky would be pleased, I think.