“Isn’t this the most fantastic thing?” How Kristian Fredrikson’s greatest wish came true

Kristian Fredrikson fell in love with the ballet, Nutcracker, and the music of Tchaikovsky when the Borovansky Ballet toured to New Zealand in the 1950s.

He was in his mid teens, yet saw the ballet with all the incredulity of a child.

“There was snow”, he remembered, and “ballerinas and lovely music which I had never heard”.

He bought a Decca long playing record that had more of the Nutcracker score than the more commonly recorded Nutcracker Suite.

One day, when his mother was ill in bed, he made her a cup of tea, left it at her side, and played the LP so she could hear it too.

“I ran in to her room and said ‘isn’t this the most fantastic thing?’ She was fast asleep. It was the Arabian dance, it sent her into a calm sleep”.

The overwhelming impact of Tchaikovsky on Fredrikson lasted for the rest of his life.

Aged 17, Fredrikson bought Tchaikovsky scores and read his diaries “which were censored, but I got the message. That’s when I connected with Tchaikovsky, his compassion and emotion, to his music. He was his music more than practically any composer I knew”.

When he moved from New Zealand to Australia in the early 1960s Fredrikson began to work for the Australian Ballet and was resident designer for the Melbourne Theatre Company from 1966 to 1974.

He began to collaborate with Graeme Murphy in 1975

Fredrikson told me that during Marilyn Jones’ years as artistic director of the Australian Ballet, he was very disappointed when her commission for a new Nutcracker, choreographed by the Russians, Leonid Kozlov and Valentina Kozlova, was designed by Hugh Oliveiro, a Melbourne artist.

In 1983, when Maina Gielgud became the artistic director, he didn’t give up on his mission.

“I was at Maina for ages”, hoping for a chance to design Nutcracker.

It took many years to persuade her.

At an Australian Ballet after-show reception, Gielgud told the guests she had commissioned Murphy and Fredrikson to create a new Nutcracker.

For Fredrikson, “it was like the Lilac Fairy who suddenly came and said ‘wake up from the one hundred years sleep! It’s all over. You have to do it now’”.

When Murphy and Fredrikson met at Murphy’s Sydney home to talk about the commission “we just sat there and said ‘what are we going to do?’ Graeme said ‘we’ve got to make this work’.

“Then it just occurred to me – I had seen this film about Alice Liddell, the original Alice in Wonderland.

“She had to suffer all her life because she had been Alice. I said ‘Clara is a little girl but we all get old. Where would she be today? What if we began at the end of her life and then take it back?’

“Graeme said ‘dancer’ and I said ‘yes’ and we were machine gunning each other with words.

“I got to the point of the Russian revolution and she is going to leave Russia and Graeme said ‘she is going to come to Australia’.

“Once he said that it really clarified an enormous amount….we knew where we were”.

The narrative began with the last day of the older Clara who, in the final hours before her death, recalled her childhood and years as a ballerina in Russia and then her journey to Australia where she gave her last performance.

In early 1992, before the premiere, Fredrikson told me he wasn’t sure if the ballet would succeed.

“We are not trying to destroy the ballet, we are trying to express Tchaikovsky. I don’t think Tchaikovsky was well served by the original story.

“I think he meant more; he poured his soul into this music.

“We are expecting some controversy. There will be some people who will say ‘this is not the Nutcracker I came to see’. We’re just saying ‘this is a way of looking at it now you know what happened to Clara. We came to the conclusion that Clara grew old, so we gave her a journey back to the past and presented the magic of her past as a dream present.

“At the end of our lives, our creative existences, we say ‘what did I do with it?’

“You look at what you haven’t got but you’ve got to look at the richness of the experiences and the great loves you did have”.

Creating the ballet with Murphy “was my greatest wish. I’m quite terrified. If I fail I will have to slash my wrists”.

He was joking, he said.

Kristian didn’t fail. He succeeded beyond his dreams.

He worked with Murphy on another Tchaikovsky ballet, Swan Lake, then designed Stanton Welch’s Sleeping Beauty.

The Tchaikovsky trilogy was done.

Fredrikson died on 10 November 2005.

His funeral at the Eastern Suburbs Crematorium in Sydney had a sound track – the noise of a howling wind outside interspersed with the music for the Act II pas de deux in Swan Lake.

His body lay in a coffin draped with the painted kimono he designed for Clara the ballerina, in Nutcracker.

Clara's kimono, designed by Fredrikson

Clara’s kimono, designed by Fredrikson

Every time I see Nutcracker, the Story of Clara, I remember Fredrikson, his magical costumes and settings, his adoration of Tchaikovsky, and his little apartment in Darlinghurst where the furniture, shelves and everything else were stacked with pencil sketches and luscious fabrics that looked as if they might belong in the Russian court but were probably bought at a bargain basement.

Fredrikson believed Tchaikovsky wore his heart on his sleeve – that we can hear his passion and sadness in his music.

After watching the Murphy-Fredrikson ballet again this month I can hear that more clearly than ever, not least in the music Tchaikovsky wrote for the transition between the young Clara, still a young girl at home with her family, and her mysterious journey through a wintry pine forest to a serene landscape covered in snow, then on to a vibrant magical world.

The quotes in this story are from conversations I had with Fredrikson in the 1990s and in 2000.

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Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, Australian Ballet, Amelia Soh, Leanne Stojmenov, Ai-Gul Gaisina, Kevin Jackson, photo © Daniel Boud

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, Australian Ballet, Kevin Jackson, Leanne Stojmenov, photo © Daniel Boud

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, Australian Ballet, Leanne Stojmenov, photo © Daniel Boud

Kristian Fredrikson, 2000, photo © Peter Brew-Bevan