Ross Stretton may have been tempting fate when he said in a recent TV interview that he hoped to bring the Royal Ballet ‘up to the standard of the Australian Ballet’ if AB's recent performance of 'Nutcracker' at the Sydney Opera House is anything to go by.
Not that this was the dancers' fault; it was simply impossible to judge them in the paltry choreography provided by Graeme Murphy in his radical re-tackling (i.e reducing to a musical) of this doughty old warhorse of a ballet. Murphy has attempted to do to Nutcracker what Matthew Bourne did to AMP's Swan Lake and has failed. It isn't a spectacular failure - the show has its moments and is consistently enjoyable and entertaining, but it's a musical, not a ballet despite a lovely first-act pdd for Miranda Coney and Stephen Heathcote, two of AB's most senior principal (this came so early in the show that I was lulled into a false sense of security as to what was to follow.)
Murphy has set his 'musical' in 50s suburban Melbourne, which allows him to dress the show in those kitschy 50s frocks and long gloves so beloved of these ballet chaps. The part of Clara is taken by three dancers; Clara as a retired ballerina reminiscing about her childhood and youth in the Imperial Russian Ballet and the Ballet Russe is played by the distinguished former ballerina Dame Margaret Scott, founder of the Australian Ballet School and now in her 70s, Clara as the adult ballerina is danced by Miranda Coney and Clara as a child by Lucinda Bourchier (all three memorably and touchingly take their final curtain calls together). In the programme notes Murphy states that he fooled Dame Margaret into appearing as the elderly Clara by telling her that it would be 'just a short appearance'. In truth, she's rarely off stage and still has amazing fluidity and grace.
Kristian Fredrikson's excellent set shows the living-room, kitchen, upstairs bedroom and garden of a Melbourne house, the garden complete with children who skip, play ball and speak dialogue.
It was difficult to pick out particular dancers as none were given much opportunity to shine, but Miranda Coney did miracles with the little she was given; I loved her duet with Stepen Heathcote where they are given one magically swift and graceful wrapping of hands and wrists which I longed to see over and over again (sad when a ballet is reduced to just one such treasured moment). Audience favourite David McAllister danced crisply and impressively as the Nutcracker prince in the odd costume Fredrikson provided, a sort of plumed headdress and velvet pantaloons. Lynette Wills, who so impressed me as Lescaut's mistress in the AB video of 'Manon' was criminally wasted in the non-dancing role of Tsarina Alexandra. The Snowflakes dance I thought was a mess; the nicely-schooled corps were required to spin around on their bottoms once too often and their fussy headdresses were a distraction. The puzzling addition of a Flamenco dance complete of two flamenco guitarists, plus a jolly sailors' romp with unidentifiable music didn't help either, and what Murphy has done to the Sugar Plum music I hardly dare report, but it involves a group of portly elderly dancers tippy-toeing tipsily through it - it's meant to be funny very nearly is, but is no replacement for what it is meant to be. Truly the Petipa (Ivanov?) baby has been thrown out with the bathwater here.
There are some lovely moments though; the elderly Clara in her nightie swinging hevty punches and the invading Bolshevik rats, a series of life-sized wooden Russian dolls opening finally to reveal a real ballerina, and the opening scene in the kitchen when the old lady switches on her radio to hear the tinny sounds of the opening bars of the Nutcracker oveture until the real orchestra melts seamlessly into it (quite a feat).
A word finally about the Sydney Opera House for those who haven’t seen it. The interior, sadly, doesn't live up to the magnificent exterior. The foyer and bars are gloomy and cavernous despite providing spectacular views over Sydney Harbour. Though the sightlines in the theatre are excellent, with properly raked and spaced seats, the main stage isn't particularly big for such a prestigious house.
I was told that a major redesign of the interior is on the cards; if this happens then Sydney’s most famous building really will be the eighth wonder of the world