Milton Court Concert Hall at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London
December 19, 2017
There are Nutcrackers all over London this Christmas: at Covent Garden, at the Coliseum, at the Royal Albert Hall. But before you mutter, “Not another one,” hold on a second, because the utterly charming and totally engaging The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu, proved to be, well, just a little bit different.
Devised by the eponymous young pianist, The Nutcracker and I tells of a girl’s Christmas night dream, of battles with mice, of a Nutcracker turned prince. So far, so traditional. But there’s a very autobiographical element here too. It opens with an animated little girl walking on stage, sitting at the (real) piano and starting to play. As the snow falls and swirls in the imaginary breeze, she transforms into Dariescu, reimagined as Clara, the girl who dreamt of becoming a concert pianist.
The story unfolds over 55 minutes to piano arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker favourites by Mikhail Pletnev, Stepan Esipoff and Percy Grainger, plus three new ones by Gavin Sutherland. Dariescu and dancer Amy Drew (Désirée Ballantyne danced the earlier premiere) perform behind a gauze screen onto which animations created by Yeast Culture, perhaps best known in dance for their work on Akram Khan’s Desh, are projected.
Of course, bringing together real people and animations is nothing new. Even way back there was Gene Kelly with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh; and Dick van Dyke, Julie Andrews and those pesky penguins in Mary Poppins. That’s film, though. Doing it on stage is altogether trickier. Perhaps a little surprisingly, it all works rather well as the animations (created from real dancers) engage with the real-life dancer and pianist.
Although the traditional narrative has been shortened to fit the music, it remains coherent. Most of the cuts come early. The family party is reduced to visiting friends, and there is no Drosselemyer. After that, though, almost all the familiar moments are there.
The possibilities the animations give are used to the full. The Christmas tree doesn’t just grow, it decorates itself. The animated Clara dissolves into fairy dust, revealing the real-life Drew. In the battle, mice are able to appear in the tree. Drew actually appears to climb the tree (remember Khan doing likewise in Desh?). The battle, in front of the moon, is rather good too.
Then it’s off to the Kingdom of the Sweets, the brief journey highlighted by some super mechanical walking confections. Dariescu and Lee keep the narrative going by having Clara join in with the divertissements. Best is the Arabian dance, performed against a backdrop of a huge vaulted corridor. I loved the way the scarves they danced with became like will o’ the wisps when thrown. The others are presented traditionally too, although the bearded Russians looked a bit odd and I didn’t go a bundle on the old-fashioned depiction of the Chinese either.
The impressive settings that are created with the projections create does make one wonder why ballet seems so unwilling to embrace them for backdrops, Ballet Cymru aside. Agreed, in contemporary dance there is has long been a tendency for them to overwhelm the live action, actually as much a problem of giving designers too much head than anything else, but it doesn’t have to be that way, and they do open up new opportunities.
The animations do bring issues, especially when Drew and any of the cartoon figures pass one another, although that is avoided as much as possible. The choreography has also had to be kept fairy flat to the audience. Potentially, the biggest problem is that animated dancers can’t lift or support real ones. Any dance regular will spot that such moments are not there, but Lee circumvents things pretty well, and the choreography is pleasing and more than effective.
Dariescu may be young but she already has an impressive reputation as a live artist. It’s easy to see why. She has that very special thing: presence. She dazzled me with her playing, so much so that, once or twice, I found myself watching her rather than the dance. I loved the way she interacted with the action too, accepting tea from one of the Chinese animations and even at one point appearing to chat with Drew.
An aim of Dariescu’s for The Nutcracker and I is ‘to reach out to new audiences who might not have considered coming to a classical concert before.’ Will it work? It just might. Certainly, there were more youngsters at Milton Court than I would expect to see at a classical recital. Everyone was absolutely rapt. There may have not been any hint of the darkness that all the best Nutcrackers have, but who cares, because it was a magical evening
The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu had only two performances in London. It’s now off to Stavanger and China. Surely it will return, though. When it does, do go and lose yourself in its magical innocence.
An accompanying CD and book of The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu will be released by Signum Records next April.