State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, 17 September
In a season themed "A Year of Enchantment", a version of The Nutcracker would seem to be mandatory. Peter Wright’s 1990 version is the choice for The Australian Ballet’s final production for the year. There is no arguing that The Nutcracker is a quintessential feel-good ballet with all the trimmings – magical transformations, darkness and whimsy together with an adored Tchaikovsky musical score.
The Nutcracker is traditionally a Christmas ballet and, with the exception of Graeme Murphy’s rendering, it can feel seasonally out of sync, especially when viewed during a bright and sunny spring. Perhaps that is why Wright’s version seemed to me to be on the visually heavy side. In the main, the sets are far from ethereal – they are hard, weighty and use mainly a solid colour palette of reds, pinks and dark greens.
The opening night cast with a few exceptions also seemed weighed-down and appeared to struggle a little against the choreography or the music or both. The hard work was more evident than is usual for these accomplished and seasoned dancers – some of whom have danced the roles many times. There was a sense that they lacked security in some sections. The production just didn't feel entirely ready.
The first act of this Nutcracker seems to take forever to really get going. Having said that, Benedicte Bemet as Clara was a delight and perfectly cast in the role. Her Clara is all sweetness and innocencence but her technique is commanding. This version of the ballet incorporates her character in each scene and Bemet shone throughout. Shaun Andrews as Jack in the Box was dynamic and buoyant and another highlight in this act. The rats are always a bit of fun too, but it is not until the First Act pas de deux with Clara and the Nutcracker Prince (Luke Marchant) that I was fully carried into the ballet’s world of enchantment. It was worth the wait in this case, with beautiful control shown from both dancers. Following this, the Snowflakes were swirly and glorious - it is always lovely to be immersed in this section that creates its own micro world within the whole. Here the sets lighten with an icy, luminous forest towering above the dancers. The ensemble and featured dancers were strong and confident.
Act II starts with a breathtaking vision of Clara being borne across the sky on the back of a snow goose, eliciting gasps from the audience. The Land of Sweets is filled with a confection of flowers and Arabians, Spanish dancers, Mirlitons and, of course, the wonderful Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince. This act still suffered from the same sense of lack of control but it moved more swiftly than the first. The Waltz of the Flowers was well-executed by the corps, but the costumes look a little long and heavy. The Spanish dance (Dana Stephensen, Jarryd Madden and Cristiano Martino) was performed with slickness and precision and the dancers conveyed suitable haughtiness. The Arabian was lush and sleek, conveying great artistry from Natasha Kusen, Callum Linnane, Nathan Brook and Brodie James), however the partnering was a little insecure. The Mirlitons (Sharni Spencer, Imogen Chapman, Jacqueline Clark and Yuumi Yamada) were crisp and clean.
It was great to see Amber Scott back on stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She and Bull made a strong pairing with moments of magic between them; however, some insecurity was evident even here.
Overall the performance artistry was evident, but the production seemed under-rehearsed, with insecurity particulary apparent in partnering. For me the production was adequate but somehow cumbersome and it left me anxious for the dancers at certain points. For all my reservations, the audience seemed to be carried along by the magic of Wright’s Nutcracker. In the end, that is the most important thing. In retrospect, perhaps it suffered in comparison with the last two ballets in the season (Lac and Sylvia) which were truly exciting and fresh. It may also be time for a radical reimagining of elements of The Nutcracker.
- SUSAN BENDALL
The Nutcracker plays Melbourne until September 28, Adelaide October 8-12 and Sydney November 30 - December 18.
Pictured top: Adam Bull and Benedicte Bemet. Photo: Jeff Busby.