Nutcracker: the Gift of a Dream | Australian Ballet SchoolValerie Tereshchenko and Andrew Wright in The Nutcracker: The Gift of a Dream. Photo - Sergy Konstantinov

The Nutcracker
has long been a holiday tradition in North America and Europe - a celebration of the Christmas season with a much-loved story and Tchaikovsky’s instantly recognisable hum-a-long musical score. The Australian Ballet School gives a fun, lively and kid-friendly rendition of this classical ballet, bringing the wintry-tale to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, where picnics on the sloping lawn, ice cream, and mosquito repellent are the seasonal order of the day.

Festivities begin early, with an onstage warm-up class featuring the older dancers in the school. As the audience trickles into the amphitheatre, we hear some parents patiently explaining the purpose of these strange activities, while one hyperactive child runs laps around the seating bank to sounds of tinkling piano accompaniment. It’s a terrific atmosphere - relaxed and informal - and offers a chance to check out the technique of these young dancers, who seem completely nonplussed by the surrounding chaos.

This version of the classic ballet, Nutcracker: The Gift of a Dream, features pleasant, simple choreography from 2002 by Leigh Rowles, which shows off the skill of over one hundred and twenty students aged from nine to twenty. It’s an enormous cast but fortunately, the Australian Ballet School is such a finely tuned machine that there is hardly a hair-bow or a satin sash out of place.

The story begins with a Christmas party, where children and adults alike celebrate the holiday in rousing style - although the men indulge a tad too deeply in the punch, with predictably amusing results. These inebriated party guests are Australian Ballet School staff including Christine Howard, Irina Konstantinova, Lisa Pavane, Margaret Wilson, Mark Annear, Simon Dow and Sergey Konstantinov. The slightly sinister Drosselmeyer, performed by Daniel Roberts (wearing shockingly electric blue eye-shadow), brings gifts that come to life and dance for the guests.

The fun really begins after the party, as young Clara (Elise Jacques) ventures downstairs in the dead of night to find her Christmas gift from Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker doll (Brodie Linford). In the traditional story, a battle is waged between a vicious army of mice and the toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker. However, in this version, the rodents are corpulent and comical figures, prancing across stage in neon-coloured ballet slippers and bow-ties - the jostling from their enormous padded bellies and thighs eliciting a great deal of mirth from the audience. The royal Mouse King/Queen, performed by Dimitri Kleioris with Christine Vavladellis perched on his shoulders, is simply massive - both in size and in presence - yet is far too funny to frighten even the youngest audience members.

In the second act, Valerie Tereshchenko and Andrew Wright, who was promoted to Coryphée with the Australian Ballet this past year, respectably perform the older versions of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. The second act also features some favourite character dances, including the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristy Corea), the Spanish, Russian and French dances, as well as the politically incorrect - yet traditional - Chinese dance. The stage is stolen, however, by Timothy Crafti, whose interpretation of the Old Woman who lived in a shoe, chased around the stage in a voluminous gown by her numerous offspring, is suitably outlandish. Also noteworthy is Francis Lawrence, who seems to be channelling Vaslav Nijinsky in Scheherazade as the Snake Charmer.

When evaluating this production, we have to bear in mind that this is essentially a student recital - albeit an impressively professional one. The dancers are well rehearsed, and thoughtfully coached in terms of appropriate facial expressions. They have clean technique, and a lovely openness and expression in their upper bodies that seems to be a distinctly Australian feature. Rowles’ choreography effectively showcases their skills, and is nicely pitched for her large audience, with eye-catching costumes, lively performances, and just the right amount of humour to be entertaining.

And if the inclusion of the dancing Snowflakes and Icicles seems slightly ironic during a Southern Hemisphere summer - well, nobody seems to care very much.

The Australian Ballet School
Nutcracker – The Gift of a Dream

Venue: Sidney Myer Music Bowl | Gates & Box Office open at 6.00pm
Dates: 8.30pm Friday 5 and Saturday 6 December 2008
Tickets: Range from $15/person for lawn to $43/$50 for premium undercover A Reserve seats
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 | or via the Arts Centre Box Office and Ticketmaster outlets

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