Lights, carols, traditions… you might have noticed Christmas is a-coming. In the US The Nutcracker is established as a Christmas stalwart and it’s settling in to become one in Brisbane as well. Queensland Ballet gave their first season of The Nutcracker in 2013 and have performed it annually since, opening its sixth season of Ben Stevenson’s hugely popular production on Friday at the Lyric Theatre.
Kohei Iwamoto and Lou Spichtig in Queensland Ballet’s The Nutcracker, 2018, dress rehearsal. Photograph © David Kelly
The opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s energetic, infectious score initiate a feeling of delightful anticipation. The orchestra under the baton of Nigel Gaynor fill the space with the familiar melodies that are integral to the pleasure of this ballet. The curtain rises and Act 1 opens on a scrim depicting a snowy winter woodland. A comic cavalcade of guests makes their way across the stage, on their way to the Stahlbaum farmhouse for a Christmas party. The set (designed by Thomas Boyd) is a riot of red and green, the colours of glacé cherry and candied angelica, and the action is as nutty as fruitcake. This is a Dickensian Christmas where the men wear top hats, the old women wear bonnets, the boys wear britches and the girls have ringlets. There are many silly goings-on among the various guests and the dancers make the most of the humour. The presence of children– including Charlie K, the 12-year-old winner of this year’s Suncorp Wish Upon a Star competition – adds to the natural liveliness. It’s a scene of domestic chaos and affection and the narrative moves along at a cracking pace: the arrival of the eccentric Dr Drosselmeyer, the gift of the nutcracker, the battle with the rats … There’s much story to tell and not much dancing until the nutcracker turns into a handsome prince and Clara finds herself in the nocturnal silvery-blues of the Land of Snow.
The Waltz of the Snowflakes that follows offers a beautiful contrast to the busy action. Neneka Yoshida is a serene and smiling Snow Queen while her dancing is strong and focused. The scene ends with ethereal song from the voices of the Birralee Choir and, once the curtain drops, the audience is surprised by the soft fall of glistening flakes into the auditorium.
Lucy Green and Victor Estévez in Queensland Ballet’s The Nutcracker, 2018, dress rehearsal. Photograph © David Kelly
Act Two is set in the brightly lit, candy-coloured Kingdom of the Sweets. It offers a series of exciting variations, which showcase the many talents of the dancers. The soloist Lisa Edwards, who is retiring at the end of this season, displays a languorous flexibility as the Arabian Dancer, securely supported by Joel Woellner (all those overhead lifts!), and the powerful elevation of D’Arcy Brazier in the tricky solo of the Russian Dancer is enthusiastically received. Lina Kim and Alexander Idaszak skim across the full expanse of the stage with graceful airiness as the lead flower couple in the Waltz of the Flowers. The ensemble work of the corps de ballet is impeccable.
The Sugar Plum Fairy is danced by Lucy Green and Victor Estévez takes the part of the Prince. The act builds to their grand pas de deux and they have authority and confidence in their roles, executing the technical difficulties of their solos with admirable attention to detail.
The dancers of the Queensland Ballet are accomplished technicians who hit each position cleanly. They are all delightful performers and collectively there is a sense of commitment to the make-believe on stage that draws you into their world. But there is sometimes a lack of nuance; perhaps more could be excavated from individual movements, more fluidity in the phrasing. The arms of female dancers are well-positioned but can be stiff. The port de bras don’t undulate from the centre of the back through to the fingertips.
Neneka Yoshida in Queensland Ballet’s The Nutcracker, 2018, dress rehearsal. Photograph © David Kelly
Stevenson’s choreography tends to tightly follow each note of the score, and this too reduces a sense of flow. It is formal and precise in the grand Petipa manner, reserved not abandoned. This means the music is more emotional and expressive than the dancing that accompanies it. For example, as the music swells in the grand pas de deux, the Sugar Plum Fairy bourrés forward into position to do … a pirouette en dehors. This follows Petipa’s style which Stevenson is matching here, but the step feels prosaic and somehow unequal to the moment. At this point the music stirs the audience, not the dancing.
Stevenson first choreographed his Nutcracker in 1976 and the production is beginning to show its age. There’s no light and shade in Act Two, the stage is bright the whole time and the mood doesn’t change. Similarly, the costumes are somewhat dated. On the cover of the program, Neneka Yoshida appears in a stylishly dishevelled blonde wig and a white costume, but the ballet features resolutely traditional tutus and tiaras (and bonnets).
This is not to go all bah-humbug on the quintessential Christmas ballet. For many ballet-lovers, traditional and old-fashioned is the point. The Nutcracker is a brightly coloured bauble, and Queensland Ballet bring it to life with joyous exuberance. The audience had a wonderful time on the opening night and this impressive company deserves another sell-out season.
The Nutcracker plays at QPAC until December 22