The Nutcracker

Playhouse, QPAC (Queensland Ballet)


The Nutcracker is sheer magic, even for people who don’t like ballet. I didn’t see one dutiful father dozing off, not even during the feathery Swan Lake-type sequences, nor were any kids whining and nagging to be taken to the lavatory. The audience was full of enthusiasm, and all in all there can’t be a better pre-Christmas treat in the whole of Brisbane.

Most people know the story of The Nutcracker, how young Clara, the cherished youngest child of a wealthy German family in the 1890s, is given a special gift from godfather Drosselmeyer at the annual family Christmas party. It’s a nut-cracker, which Clara’s brother Fritz covets, and finally breaks, although godfather Drosselmeyer mends it with a handkerchief he miraculously draws from the air. After they’ve all gone to bed, Clara creeps down to the ballroom to retrieve her Nutcracker, and falls asleep and, while she is sleeping, she dreams that all the toys have come to life and are battling against the Mouse King. When Clara defeats the Mouse King, who had almost vanquished the heroic Nutcracker, she is delighted to find that he has turned into a handsome prince, who whisks her off into the Land of Snow and the Land of Sweets. Never mind kissing frogs – it seems as if a simple blow to a mouse will do just as well.

Why a young girl should be so passionately devoted to a stiff wooden toy dressed as a soldier is anyone’s guess – and I promise I won’t tell you mine if you don’t tell me yours! But the Freudians among us will instantly see this as a story of sibling rivalry and a girl’s coming-of-age, and one of the tricks for the ballerina dancing Clara is to make a credible transition from child to adolescent while still staying in character.

I couldn’t tell whether it was Rachael Walsh or Amelia Waller, who alternate the role, who was dancing last Thursday night, but whoever it was made a charming little girl, and managed the shift to sexual awakening very skilfully.

In large part the credit for all this must go to artistic director of the Queensland Ballet, Francois Klaus, whose choreography has deconstructed the original bland 19th century versions and put them back together with a modern twist. The clowns, for example, are as stiff as pokers even when they are doing the splits, and their acrobatic talents do seem to come straight from the circus rather than from a balletic training.

I’m no expert on dance, but I was very impressed by the overall standard even from the younger dancers from the Professional Year and Junior Extension programs. If these girls and boys are indicative of the quality of the next generation of dancers, then Queensland looks set to equal Sydney as the ballet capital of Australia. The only weak link in the chain of dancers was the male corps de ballet, who were often ragged and out of synch, especially in their early number as the cadets, where they failed to demonstrate the virility that this ballet surely calls for.

Part of the pleasure of seeing The Nutcracker is the thrill of recognition – in context, those familiar tunes are much more beautiful than their transmogrification into advertising jingles would have us believe. And then there are the set pieces – the Arabian Dance, the Spanish Dance (although the costuming was a little underwhelming here), the Russian Dance and the Dance of the Flower Fairies, until the Grand Pas de Deux finishes it all off with everyone’s favourite, the Sugar Plum Fairy, so much more elegant than her name implies.

Graham McKenzie’s sets go from authentic period ballroom to winter wonderland with an astonishing use of flats, especially the Christmas tree, which triples in size in less than a minute. David Walters’ subtle lighting illuminates where it has to without drawing attention to itself, and Noeline Hill’s costumes bring colour and movement to an already exuberant production – I never thought a 19th century bustle could work as a dance costume.

Modern dance is wonderful and exciting, classical tales of thwarted love with a corps-de-ballet in tutus or feathery gowns can be beautiful, and jazz ballet brings a rush of blood to the soul. But in this totally enchanting and brilliantly-staged production of The Nutcracker there’s never a longueur or a false move, and whether you’re a tiny ballet wannabe, a doting aunt, a kindly grandfather or just a lover of controlled skill and beauty, there’s something for you in this Christmas treat, as well as the happy ending we all long for at heart.

Choreographed by Francois Klaus for the Queensland Ballet

Playing until 13 December – Sunday 11 at 3pm, Tuesday 13 at 6.30pm

Duration 2 hours, with a 20 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 7th December 2005)