Considering my level of coordination rivals that of a gangly, new-born deer attempting to walk upon a sheet of ice, you may find it surprising that I was once a ballet dancer. For eight years I pirouetted, arabesqued, chasséd, demi pliéd and generally spoke much more French than I do now before the trials of life stripped my first passion away from me. While I wasn’t a talented dancer by any means, I was certainly a committed one, studying six different types of dance that meant I spent more time in ballet shoes than any other form of footwear. I was once even chosen to dance with the New Zealand Ballet as part of an ensemble but was swiftly kicked out for talking too much and subsequently received a much better character part. I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
But, like the ugly duckling in reverse, I grew less graceful and more self conscious (and less talkative) as adolescence peeled me from my youthful abandon and my life as a dancer was over.
However, back then, such was my passion for music and dance that I consumed as much Grease, Annie, Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu than was probably healthy for a young girl but somehow never managed to see the world’s most famous ballet, The Nutcracker. Ironically I’ve probably actually danced IN The Nutcracker but was too busy backstage being caked in hairspray, make-up and tulle to have ever experienced the full shebang. I always believed it was the tale of a bunch of Christmas toys getting up to mischief while their human playmates slept—Like ‘Toy Story: The Ballet’. But it’s not like that at all as I found out when I finally attended the Queensland Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’ at QPAC this Christmas.
The Nutcracker is based on a story adapted by Alexandre Dumas of ‘The Three Musketeers’ fame and is (unbelievably I know) about a nutcracker. But like most good ballets, and operas too I imagine, the plot is tenuous at best and simply provides a hook to hang the dancing upon. The ballet was originally performed in 1892 but proving unsuccessful was abandoned on the scrapheap. This was evidenced in the film Fantasia (as mentioned in an earlier post) when the narrator introduces Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite by explaining that The Nutcracker ballet “wasn’t much of a success and nobody performs it nowadays.” However merely four years after this infamous statement the San Francisco Ballet introduced The Nutcracker into the hearts of the public, forever cementing the ballet as a crucial component of the Christmas tradition the world over.
The Nutracker begins at a lavish Christmas party in the mansion of the Stahlbaum family. Much to the delight of the children, their godfather, the dastardly toy-maker Herr Drosselmeyer, arrives to distribute presents, one of which is the infamous nutcracker. After the party the youngest child, Clara, sneaks down to the parlour to check on the nutcracker but as the clock strikes midnight everything in the room grows and she is beset by a plague of mice. The now alive nutcracker and his army of gingerbread men do battle with the Mouse King but quickly fall to his micey minions until Clara throws a slipper at them triumphantly winning the battle. Who knew slippers could be such an effective weapon eh?
Up until this point the ballet makes a strange kind of sense but then the nutcracker inexplicably transforms into a prince and takes Clara to the Land of Snow for a dance. Afterwards they visit the Land of Sweets where the Sugar Plum Fairy celebrates their victory with a selection of dances including the Spanish Dance, the Arabian Dance, the Russian Dance, the Chinese Dance, the Mirliton Dance (?) and the Waltz of the Flowers. Then they all dance some more until Clara awakens back in the parlour of her mansion, the nutcracker cradled in her arms. This nonsensical second act could be blamed upon that old chestnut, “it was all just a dream”.
While this is the official story, in the Queensland Ballet version of events, following Clara’s dance with the prince, it was her omnipresent godfather Drosselmeyer who accompanied her to the Land of the Sweets and their rapport was such that I couldn’t help continually questioning their bizarre relationship.
Perhaps we simply mixed up the dancers because our $55 nosebleed seats meant we were so far away and so high up that my fear of heights was distracting enough to make the experience an uncomfortable one. I spent a lot of time thinking about how dance is the only activity humans participate in where a complex set of movements are repeated over and over, night after night.
(If your mind just wandered to the gutter, come back now please because we’re discussing ballet for chrissakes.)
Tchaikovsky’s stirring and timeless score was performed beautifully by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Queensland Ballet’s sets and lighting were lovely and spectacular respectively. However as ballet was such a large part of my life for a time I still have a critical eye for dance and, while there were undoubtedly some stunning dances including the Snow Dance and the Arabian Dance, for the most part the performances and choreography were far from faultless.
An oddity of ballet which I’ve always found ridiculous is that you are required to clap so much that it’s a wonder your hands don’t perpetually meld together. Not only are you expected to clap after every dance but at the end you generally clap for a good ten minutes as you applaud the ensemble, then each group of dancers, then individual dancers, then the ensemble again, then the director, the individual dancers again, the ensemble, and then, if you’re lucky, they might finally drop the curtain giving your blistered hands some peace.
Even though my time as a dancer is over there were certainly plenty of small, perfectly groomed girls in the audience for whom the dream continues or for whom, after seeing The Nutcracker the dream begins.
May your Christmases be merry and your godfathers not so creepy!