A Nutcracker gift that keeps on giving, thanks to Peter Wright and John Macfarlane

It’s close to quarter of a century since Sir Peter Wright choreographed his Nutcracker for the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

He had already created a Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet, but in 1990, when he became founding director of BRB, Wright surpassed his former production in both the clarity of his narrative and his choice of his collaborator, the artist John Macfarlane. The result was the most satisfying traditional Nutcracker of the 20th century.

The Australian Ballet brought Wright’s production into its repertoire in 2007, marking the fourth Nutcracker in its history.

The first was David Lichine’s in 1963, then the production by Leonid Kozlov and Valentina Kozlova in 1982, and Graeme Murphy’s 1992 Nutcracker, a masterwork known informally within the company as the Gumnut-cracker due to its Australian narrative.

Now the Australian Ballet is closing the year with a sold out season of Wright’s Nutcracker in Sydney. The first night of the season, 28 November, marked the Australian Ballet’s 96th performance of the ballet, and one enhanced by the guest conductor, the empathetic, Barry Wordsworth, who will be principal guest conductor of the Royal Ballet for its 2015/16 season.

The applause and the oohs and aahs of the audience was evidence of the warm response to the production, particularly in the transformation scenes – the expansion of the Christmas tree and Clara’s flight to the Kingdom of the Sweets on the back of a goose.

Macfarlane’s designs represent warmth with red on red dominating both sets and costumes, including the sumptuous dress of Clara’s mother, the cloak worn by Drosselmeyer, the costume of the Prince, the dresses of the Flowers and the Soldiers and the giant painted flower in Act 2.

The focal point is the 15-year-old Clara, a ballet student whose mother was a ballerina. Clara doesn’t just sit on the sidelines during Act 2 but dances alongside the Spanish dancers, the Arabians, the Chinese and the Mirlitons.

She is transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy, a ballerina role that she has dreamed was her destiny.

This is not entirely clear if you don’t read the synopsis as one dancer is Clara and the ballerina role is danced by a principal artist of the company, on opening night by Madeleine Eastoe.

This means the grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince can seem like a gala performance rather than a continuation of the story but in any case all logic has vanished long ago as in Nutcracker we’re in ballet fantasy land from start to finish.

As Clara, Benedicte Bemet was on stage throughout almost the entire ballet. She was both charming and convincing in her portrayal of a girl living her own dream.

Miwako Kubota flew like a feather through her Rose Fairy variation while three elders, the guest dancers, Kathleen Geldard, Colin Peasley and Frank Leo, added an element of both gravitas and fun as the Grandmother, Grandfather and Butler.

Who will be the next generation of dancers aged 60-plus who can follow in the footsteps of these three?

As for the corps de ballet the Australian Ballet dancers have proved their stamina and energy once again in Nutcracker, a production that closely followed their important role in La Bayadere (the Shades) and the Swans they will soon dance in Murphy’s Swan Lake and the Wilis of Maina Gielgud’s Giselle.

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Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer, Ingrid Gow (Clara’s mother) and Benedicte Bermet (Clara), photo © Jeff Busby

Benedicte Bemet dances with the Mirlitons, Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet, photo © Jeff Busby

Benedicte Bernet and artists of the Australian Ballet, Nutcracker, photo © Jeff Busby

Land of Snow, artists of the Australian Ballet, photo © Jim Mcfarlane