The Nutcracker is traditionally staged at Christmas rather than mid-year – but then Graeme Murphy’s radical reimagining of the ballet is no traditional Nutcracker.

“I think people might be surprised that we are doing it in May in Sydney and in June in Melbourne but this story isn’t celebrating Christmas as such, it’s Clara’s story,” says Australian Ballet principal Leanne Stojmenov.

Australian Ballet, The Nutcracker, Leanne StojmenovLeanne Stojmenov. Photo © Branco Gaica

“We don’t do it at Christmas because it doesn’t necessarily feel like a Christmas Nutcracker,” agrees AB Artistic Director David McAllister. “But it’s such a beautiful work. I think it’s one of the great Kristian Fredrikson/Graeme Murphy creations.”

Set in 1950s Australia, Nutcracker – The Story of Clara as the ballet is called, was the first full-length work that Murphy and Fredrikson (who died in 2005) created together for the AB, though they had previously collaborated at Sydney Dance Company. They would, of course, go on to create a much-loved production of Swan Lake together for the AB.

Their Nutcracker premiered in 1992. With 2017 marking its quarter century, it seemed a perfect time to revisit it again, following previous revivals in 1994, 2000 and 2009. “It’s 25 years since we first did the production, which is a mile stone in itself,” says McAllister who danced opposite Vicki Attard as second cast in the original season. “And, strangely, it is the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution. This ballet is so steeped in that period of history, so all these anniversaries were calling it back, I felt.”

The Australian Ballet, The Nutcracker, The Story of ClaraLeanne Stojmenov and Marc Cassidy in The Australian Ballet’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara. Photo © Branco Gaica

Esteemed dance writer and historian Michelle Potter has described Murphy’s Nutcracker as “one of the great treasures of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire” and “the closest thing we have in Australia to a dance masterpiece.”

In Murphy’s retelling, Clara is an elderly Russian emigrant and former ballerina. On a hot, steamy Christmas Eve in Melbourne, she hears Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music on the radio. When her Russian friends arrive, they reminisce about their lives and end up dancing together. Exhausted, Clara lies down and as she falls asleep her dreams whisk her back to her childhood in Russia, her ballet training at the Imperial Conservatoire and her rise through the ranks of the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. When the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution breaks out, the young soldier she loves is killed, leaving her shattered. In the years that follow, she joins Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, tours the world and arrives in Australia in 1940 where she dances with the Borovansky Ballet. As her dream comes to an end, her life slips away.

In telling the story, Murphy has three dancers playing Clara at different stages of her life. He has also included lots of references to the original Nutcracker. The snowflake scene becomes the swirling winter landscape of Clara’s St Petersburg, for example, while the Nutcracker Doll’s fight with the mice becomes the Soldier’s struggle with the Bolsheviks (portrayed as rats in ragged greatcoats).

“It’s such an incredible piece of dance theatre. There are so many layers to it. That’s what keeps it so perennially relevant because it says all these great things about the life of a dancer and the history of ballet in Australia, as well as the turmoil of Clara’s life and [the events] that were happening around her,” says McAllister.

“I love that it could be a story that actually happened. That’s how the Borovansky Ballet started with emigrants from the Ballets Russes,” says Stojmenov, who played Clara the prima ballerina in 2009, and who will do so again now.

“I think it’s a very moving ballet and beautifully done by Janet [Vernon, Murphy’s creative associate] and Graeme. I really love the way they have the elderly ballerina as well as the ballerina in her prime and then the younger ballet dancer. I think it has a beautiful thread,” says Stojmenov, who will be partnered in this season by Kevin Jackson as Clara’s soldier lover.

The older Clara has been played by luminaries like Dame Margaret Scott, Valrene Tweedie, Marilyn Jones and Ai-Gul Gaisina.

“It’s incredible sharing the stage with those older dancers,” says Stojmenov. “The people chosen for that role have had incredible careers and you’re very fortunate to be able to share that experience alongside them on stage.”

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara plays at the Sydney Opera House May 2 – 20, and at Arts Centre Melbourne June 2 – 10