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UNFAILING POPULAR APPEAL

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Photo: Maarten Holl
Photo: Maarten Holl
The Nutcracker
Choreographer: Gary Harris
Additional choreography: Adrian Burnett
Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Design: Kristian Fredrikson

at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 1 Dec 2010 to 5 Nov 2010

Reviewed by Jenny Stevenson, 30 Oct 2010


Five years after creating this version of The Nutcracker for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company, departing Artistic Director, Gary Harris – following nine years in the position – has restaged it as his farewell offering,. It is a fitting “parting shot” to remember him by: colourful, lots of fun, boisterous, and above all, not too reverential.

Under Harris' direction the Company has moved forward in incremental leaps to the point where, as he hands his charge over to the Company's stellar new Director, Ethan Stiefel, he can be quietly confident that his tenure has left an indelible imprint for the better on this superb group of dancers.

The Nutcracker's unfailing popular appeal, over the 118 years since it was first performed, is not hard to fathom when you consider the saccharine setting, with the world as seen through a child's eyes and the slightly dark overtones of the Hoffman tale on which it is based. 

But Harris has inverted many of the ballet's conventions to fit his own slightly wacky take, which is set in a children's hospital and creates a series of visual gags and caricatures for our amusement. It is not in any way satirical, but appears to be rather a subversion of the sacrosanct in order to inject a little levity into the proceedings. 

Clara's attachment to the Nutcracker Soldier Doll she receives as a Christmas present is still instrumental in conjuring up the magic dream-like sequences that take place, however. The role of Clara is beautifully performed by tiny Tonia Looker, who makes the most of the part, in spite of the small amount of dancing involved.

But the magic can also be explained away, in this version, as febrile imaginings from the concussion that Clara receives after being bumped on the head by her bother Fritz, who wants the Nutcracker Doll for himself. Added to the mix is the hefty dose of medicine administered to Clara by the Matron of the hospital, who is played by Jon Trimmer as a wannabe martinet, undermined by her ample bosom. 

As Clara drifts in and out of consciousness, the Nutcracker comes to life – danced by
Medhi Angot - and summons his soldiers to fight Clara's irrepressible brother, Fritz, who is danced with undisguised glee by Paul Russell. The soldiers' weapons of choice are feather dusters designed to tickle unmercifully, while Fritz and his gang of boys fire their catapults in return. In fact, children's games feature large in this ballet. Chasing, making-like-a-plane, bouncing on beds and pillow fights all take place in Act One as the scene is set. 

There is also a splendid threesome of stooge-like Doctors – Christopher Hinton-Lewis, Paul Mathews and Jaered Glavin – who take the mickey out of the Young Doctor and the Young Nurse, danced by Brendan Bradshaw and Katie Hurst-Saxton, who provide the requisite hospital romance. Their beautiful pas-de-deux in Act Two, when they dance the sensuous Arabian Dance, is one of high points of the evening. 

Clara often views proceedings suspended above the action on her hospital bed which hovers in the air as a sort of metaphor for heightened reality. She watches as the snowflakes take human form and dance and then later the traditional divertissement dances are performed for her entertainment, including the Chinese and Russian dances, Waltz of the Flowers and the Dance of the Mirlitons (reed flutes). 

Harris interprets the latter dance with a hilarious dead-pan trio of Christopher Hinton-Lewis, Dimitri Kleioris and Perre Doncq, dancing on crutches with their legs in plaster, which is clearly the audience favourite. 

Clytie Campbell and Qi Huan, who play Clara's Mother and Father, are superb in Act One, hamming it up with some funny business over exploding Christmas lights. They also dance the Grand Pas-de-Deux in Act Two, but still seem to be settling into this section as partners, although the solo sections which include the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, are sparkling. 

It is also a chance for the Wellington Vector Orchestra to shine, which they do, interpreting the score with verve, under the experienced baton of Kenneth Young who also conducted for the 2005 season. 

You would be hard-pressed to emerge from this feel-good production without a smile on your face. Certainly all the audience members I see after the show ended, look very happy.

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See also reviews by:
 Jennifer Shennan (The Dominion Post);
 Deirdre Tarrant (Capital Times);
 Kasey Dewar
 Kerri Fitzgerald