The Australian Ballet: “Nutcracker – The Story of Clara”
State Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria, June 2, 2017
A final performance. The audience applauds. Cries of Brava! can be heard, and flowers are tossed upon the stage in adoration and gratitude. In a tutu of rich autumnal hues, Clara takes her last bows. From the wings, her fellow dancers add to the applause.
As Tchaikovsky’s score moves from waltz finale to rolling lullaby apotheosis, when Clara turns to face us, she is no longer Clara the Ballerina, but Clara the Elder, returning from memory’s embrace to her present form. Having danced in the rhythm of her past, reliving her dreams, altering time, “it is Clara’s last memory before the darkness claims her.”1 In continuation of the glorious sensory overlap, Clara the Elder returns to her bed, and the three performers who have embodied the spirit of Clara on stage, collectively fold into one. The scene dissolves. The curtain falls. Unspeakably sad. Unspeakably uplifting. “A beautiful piece of theatrical sleight-of-hand”2 in a treasure chest of a ballet celebrating its 25th anniversary.
But perhaps the greatest sleight-of-hand in Graeme Murphy’s “Nutcracker – The Story of Clara” is the bejewelled tutus, Mariinsky-inspired Snowflake headpieces, glittering Tsarinas and Grand Duchesses used to tell a tale that delivers an emotional wallop. This is a story about aging; edges that are softened by nostalgia’s shadow; what it means to be a dancer; grace and art being stored within the body, not just within those who are younger and more athletic. This is a celebration of dance as art not just physical prowess and steps-in-a-sequence. This is powerful story telling with sequins and Bolshevik rats that use their long tails like whips. This is about a woman looking back at what was, in the winter of her life—and you thought it was just about sugar plum fairies!
This is also, if we pull back from the scene, about the history, and hence, the future of dance. Created in 1992, as Murphy explains, it “is about the birth of dance in this country, of classical ballet being taken seriously. I think it tells us things about who we are as Australians. It tells us things about how we have embraced cultures from around the world, how we’ve incorporated them, as I have, into becoming a storyteller. And my stories are richer because of this world of multiculturalism.”3
Murphy’s “Nutcracker” loops freely from summertime in late 1950s Australia back to snow-cloaked Imperial Russia before launching towards the 1917 Russian Revolution, in the way that memory does, and the musical score, in turn, can be read. Clara’s memory maps her life as a star of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before touring with Colonel de Basil to the homelands of previous divertissements: Spain, Egypt, China, and, naturally, the addition of Melbourne. Clara’s final performance is also the birth of a company, the newly formed Borovansky Ballet. To sweep such rich terrain in an evening, Clara’s story is told through three different performers, from Child Clara (Jessica Stratton-Smith) to Young Clara, performed by Leanne Stojmenov (on opening night) and Dimity Azoury (on Tuesday night), and Ai-Gul Gaisina and Chrissa Keramidas (on opening and Tuesday nights respectively) as Clara the Elder. Stojmenov not only taps into but epitomises fluid-shifting remembrance and loss, and ultimately resilience with such tactile conviction, rendering her spine elastic yet unbreakable in every intimate lift with Kevin Jackson as her Soldier/Lover.4 Great love never dims, it merely changes shape, and their connection and faith in each other feels all the deeper for beginning at the end.
From Hills Hoist to the Argus newspaper calls, the Australian gumtree angle works because it is presented as a truth. It is not (self-) consciously laid on thick; it is merely there. A mirror. This is us. A part of our dance history. These are scenes we recognise. Clara the Elder’s apartment is one we’ve all sat in, either in real life, or in a story where perhaps we wished we had a relative who had spent their formative years on the stage. As Clara the Elder, both Gaisina and Keramidas appeared to shine from inside out. To paraphrase Murphy, just as you hear Tchaikovsky poured his heart into the score,5 the same can be said of the light-footed recollections of Gaisina and Keramidas as Ballet Russes émigrés. Where past is in contrast to present, and Russian society is shown in contrast to a life of exile in Australia, the time spent in Act I with Clara and her émigré friends (Frank Leo, Colin Peasley OAM, Terese Power et al.) is what enables “Nutcracker” to hit you in the guts when the curtain closes. The body as it gets older cannot do what it might earlier have done with ease. This is the cruelty of age. And this is strength, beauty, and the importance of connections forged with others. If ever there was a call to follow your dreams, this celebration of a lived experience being that which makes us richer is it. It is precisely the amount of time spent in her apartment that is why, I believe, we feel a lump in our throat or a tear on our cheek when Clara dies. We cannot know what has been lost without knowing what is. Nostalgia colours the past, but it also informs the present and alters the future. “Time does not help us make sense of our otherwise jumbled lives; our jumbled lives help us make sense of time.”6
Naturally, if you are going to take a beloved Christmas tale of Rat Kings, Sugar Plums, and toys that come alive, and place war, political upheaval, displacement, and death in the undertow, you need lightness in there too. As the snow falls, in addition to its historical roots, to me, the Ziegfeld Follies or the large musical numbers in a Fred and Ginger movie are called to mind. Or, as we pull into a port in Egypt, the 1936 Mexican film The Wave.7
Replace the fisherman pulling the ropes of the fishing net with Jake Mangakahia, Rohan Furnell, Richard House et al.., and you have a beautifully stylised depiction of a labour. There is a sense of the cinematic in the repeated motifs, be they the circling of hands and arms, or the crouched spins of the Rats of revolution and the low turns of the falling Snowflakes.
A rich tapestry then, gloriously un-creased now, this “Nutcracker’s” magic is shown as celebration of a life lived in the fullest extension.
Rose Mulready, ‘Reaching for the moon: How the real-life Claras of the Ballets Russes shaped the course of dance history,’ “Nutcracker – The Story of Clara”, The Australian Ballet Melbourne programme, 2017, 14
Rose Mulready, “Nutcracker – The Story of Clara,” programme, 2017, 14
Though I chose to remain within the narrative, it should be noted that the artistry and assurance of Stojmenov and Jackson, as dancers, burned superbly.
Graeme Murphy, An Australian Nutcracker, YouTube video.
Marcel Proust, paraphrased by Michael L. Klein, “Debussy and the Three Machines of the Proustian Narrative,” Music and the Crises of the Modern Subject (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2015), 71
Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel, Redes (The Wave), 1936