Graham Murphy’s The Nutcracker – The Story of Clara breathes magic into an old classic. First created and performed in 1992 to celebrate the company’s 30th Anniversary, the 2009 return season of this sumptuous masterpiece is a welcome encore from the Australian Ballet.
Continuing the four year long tribute to Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a company who were instrumental in establishing ballet in Australia, The Story of Clara was developed by Murphy and designer Kristian Fredrikson. Taking us through decades and across continents with visual grace and deftness, Murphy and Fredrikson’s version is a considerable departure from the original. The Nutcracker is a very traditional European Christmas favourite, it snows, toys come to life, and rather than possessing a strong story, it focuses more on a festive atmosphere. But The Story of Clara is a very Australian affair. It is the story of a Russian ballerina whose career brings her to Australia during the time of the Russian Revolution. This is, in some ways, the story of many dancers who arrived on our shores all those years ago.
Opening to a steamy Australian Christmas scene an older Clara, played by veteran ballerina Marilyn Jones, entertains friends at her home. Outside, children partake in quintessential playground activities, like skipping and football. The suburban, domestic Australian icon of the Hills Hoist stands without clothing in the background.
The ensuing pantomime seems to be unnecessarily lengthy, without much plot development. The celebrations are somewhat mundane until Clara’s young doctor arrives and plays a reel of film showing her performing as a Prima Ballerina – images of Clara’s youthful self pirouette two and fro and John Montgomery’s lighting design lends itself to the dreamscape moment. Jones captures Clara’s nostalgia perfectly, she is at once joyous and melancholy. A photo on the wall upon which Clara has fixed her gaze coupled with an audio flash of Tchaikovsky’s original score, causes her to faint. Let the dreams begin.
With Clara’s friends gone, giant rats with giant rope-like tales bearing the red arm bands of the Bolshevik army begin removing furniture. We see Clara’s younger, dream self descend the stairs, becoming entangled in the melee. As the rats disappear, a giant babushka doll unfurls and the child Clara appears. The child and young Clara dance together until the rats take the child away. A young man appears from a backlit doorway, Clara’s soldier and lover – they engage in an entrancing pas de deux, seemingly frantic and full of heartbreak. We learn later that the lovers were on borrowed time. The rats come for Clara’s soldier too.
An opaque screen is lowered, images from the Revolution fill the stage, even Stalin is there. Philippe Charluet’s film-collages from the 1992 production are as poignant ever, adding a surreal quality to the staging, particularly these scenes of revolution that pepper the performance adding historical weight to the story.
Murphy intertwines Clara’s many selves seamlessly; the story is not only about the physical journey, but a psychological one too. The three generations come together in the snow in Clara’s homeland and become encircled by a group of snowflakes-cum-chorus girls. You hear the sharp collective intake of the audience’s breath – is it for Murphy’s steps or the late Fredrikson’s costuming, maybe both. The performance by the ‘snowflakes’ is one of the most memorable. The ballerinas flit and float and sparkle, their showgirl costumes are made of magic itself.
The second act sees child Clara achieving success at ballet school and her debut wearing an apricot tutu as the much loved Sugar Plum Fairy in front of the bejewelled Tsar and Tsarina. The ballroom, lavishly decorated is reminiscent of Midsummer Night’s Dream’s forest. Titania and Oberon would have felt at home. The only disruptions from this reverie are rogue feathers and sequins gently falling from costumes, catching the light on their way.
Clara’s escape from the revolution and journey through Egypt to China is depicted in a somewhat tokenistic manner, but it is integral to the story and a necessary part of the original. Murphy presents it as abstractly and swiftly as possible. Her arrival in Australia and peaceful sleep brings Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, full circle.