Playhouse, Qld Performing Arts Centre
Reviewed December 1
'Tis again the season for Queensland Ballet’s The Nutcracker, and after 11 years, possibly its penultimate season. Artistic Director Li Cunxin, who proved the nay-sayers wrong when he instigated the annual event in his first year with the company, is retiring, and although the 2024 season is in place, there is no guarantee the Christmas tradition will continue beyond that.
Apart from one Covid-disturbed year, this reviewer has seen every Nutcracker, and admits that, when performed with commitment and integrity, Ben Stevenson’s production can still charm. Originally made possible by the generosity of donors, this delightful interpretation of the iconic Christmas ballet sparkles with its Thomas Boyd-designed set, costumes by Desmond Healy and an exquisite lighting design by David Walters. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Voices of Birralee, under Music Director Nigel Gaynor, add to the enchantment.
Rich in its detail, the opening scene has so much busyness on stage, the attention is delightfully pulled every which way. Each of the characters is clearly defined, while different casting brings fresh notes to the characterisations. However, Rian Thompson, my favourite doddery Grandfather, again held the floor, along with Laura Tosar as Grandmother and Vanessa Morelli the tippling Aunt.
Vito Bernasconi obviously still relishes his role as a flamboyantly mysterious Dr Drosselmeyer, while Luke DiMattina, as a very naughty Fritz, showed off terrific elevation.
Bronte Kielly-Coleman anchored the ballet with a delightful, fully-fleshed interpretation of the young Clara. Her dispatching of the King Rat (Thompson), with a blow to the head by pointe shoe, is still an amusing scene, as is the preceding fight scene with female rats en pointe, and a sword-wielding Nutcracker (Liam Geck) – all performed with wit and style.
The magic truly begins with Clara’s transportation to the Land of Snow (although there seemed to be a momentary hesitation with lighting cues in this performance). Chiara Gonzalez and Patricio Revé were very well-matched as the Snow Queen and Snow Prince. Their pas de deux, which is an exquisite confection of broad sweeping movements, big lifts and expansive use of the upper body, was performed by both with a majestic grace. The final tableau was visually exquisite and never fails to get gasps of appreciation from the audience, as "snow" also starts to fall in the auditorium.
Act 2, the Kingdom of the Sweets, is little more than a series of divertissements. However, all were delivered with precision in the powder blue setting of art nouveau inspired swirls, beginning with a very tightly executed Spanish Pas de Six.
The Arabian duet of lush acrobatic movement followed, with Gonzales transported aloft by Alexander Idaszak. DiMattina and Mali Comlekci were convincing sabre-wielding, karate-chopping Chinese Dancers, while Mother Ginger (James McDonell) and her Ginger Children provided humour with several sight gags. Bernasconi’s tightly executed Russian Gopak also drew admiring applause and Lina Kim and Tosar, partnered by the very nimble Geck, also shone as the Mirlitons.
The Waltz of the Flowers, a swirling bouquet of pink, lemon and green, was presented with immaculate lines and technical finesse. Lucy Green and Joel Woellner made a compelling Lead Flower Couple, with glorious elevation and luscious epaulement. The corps were also stylistically very together both in this waltz and the Snowflakes of Act 1, an indication of how far the whole company has come since the ballet’s first 2013 performance.
The ballet built to a satisfying climax with the final Grand Pas de Deux. Mia Heathcote’s was an exquisite Sugar Plum Fairy – technically flawless and showing enormous artistic growth since her 2019 debut in the role. Together with Victor Estévez as the Prince, they were musically impeccable, with turns and lifts stylish and performed with a regal elegance. Estevez was also most at ease, giving a decidedly charismatic performance. Brisbane audiences will miss both dancers when they relocate to the Australian Ballet next year.
While it remains to be seen whether this or another production of The Nutcracker will continue as part of the Queensland Ballet repertoire beyond 2024, there is no denying the ballet’s continuing appeal to Brisbane audiences. It is a wonderful introduction to the art form for both young and older, and with a sell-out season guaranteed again this year, box office gold for the company. A joyous Christmas season for all!
– DENISE RICHARDSON
'The Nutcracker' continues until December 20.