‘The Nutcracker and I’ by Alexandra Dariescu brings live dance and animation to the classical music concert hall

David Mead talks with concert pianist Alexandra Dariescu, choreographer Jenna Lee and dancer Amy Drew about an innovative concert coming up at Milton Court at the Barbican on December 19th.

‘The Nutrcracker and I’, by Alexandra Dariescu is a classical music concert with a twist. Alexandra will be at the grand piano as usual, but joining her on stage and bringing her story to life will be a live ballerina and digital animations.

Why shift from the traditional concert format? “Because I have a responsibility as a young artist to reach out to as many people as possible and to build bridges for those new to classical music,” says Alexandra. “I absolutely love what I do but I am also quite aware that we have to be ever more creative to engage, connect and communicate the beauty of our art to our audiences.”

Alexandra chose The Nutcracker because it appeals to all ages and, to widen the concert’s appeal further, the premiere was also deliberately timed for 6pm. “I think that’s a nice time for children. And, of course it’s only 50 minutes. Remarkably, it was sold out within ten hours of tickets being released, so we added a second show at 8pm.”

'The Nutcracker and I', by Alexandra DariescuPhoto Yeast Culture
‘The Nutcracker and I’, by Alexandra Dariescu
Photo Yeast Culture

As the title suggests, ‘The Nutcracker and I’ by Alexandra Dariescu is very much her personal take on the much-loved tale. While it is The Nutcracker story, it’s told within her story, and her childhood dream of becoming a concert pianist. “In a way, I’m letting the audience in to my world,” she says.

It also gives her the chance to bring to life her own imagination. “Lots of people imagine colours or pictures or words when they play. I always imagine stories. It’s always the story behind the music. This is quite nice to be able to transpose it like that.”

Putting ‘The Nutcracker and I’ on is not without its challenges. “Our technical rider at the beginning was huge; about 20 pages,” says Alexandra. “It’s not like the usual concert. We are coming with a projector, a gauze screen. We need rigging points. We do need quite a lot of time to set up, but we have tried to keep it to a minimum.

“A particular challenge is that we have one real ballerina, with all the other characters digitally animated. You need to make it very, very, real. When Clara, our real ballerina, touches the Prince, or when she’s with the Sugar Plum Fairy, it has to be as if there are real people onstage.”

Then there’s the nature of the piano. With most instruments, the player can move, turn and face the audience, engage with them. Alexandra feels that the piano is a very solitary instrument, though. “So, what we’ve done, is have piano take the role of Uncle Drosselmeyer, who comes up with the Nutcracker and all the magic. Everything is going to come out of the piano. That’s my medium for making it all happen.” How much she will be able to see from the piano, she doesn’t know yet. “I’ll find out two weeks prior to the premiere,” she says.

Making the animations happen is Nick Hillel and the team at Yeast Culture, a film and digital media company based in Camden, London. The company embraces many disciplines and has work on many live performance projects, including, in dance, Akram Khan’s Desh. “I’d seen quite a bit of work from them in a few different productions and I absolutely fell in love with what they were doing. They were the first element in this,” says Alexandra.

'The Nutcracker and I', by Alexandra DariescuPhoto Yeast Culture
‘The Nutcracker and I’, by Alexandra Dariescu
Photo Yeast Culture

Alexandra stresses that this is a music concert. “It’s absolutely not a case of putting on a film and me providing the background music. That why we made it so I can take time, breathe a bit more. The exciting about live music is that it’s never the same. Even if you perform it two or three times in a day, it’s always going to be a little bit different.”

The music itself features 12 piano arrangements of Tchaikovsky numbers from the ballet by Mikhail Pletnev, Stepan Esipoff and Percy Grainger, plus three new arrangements by English National Ballet music director, Gavin Sutherland. All the favourites are there including the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Arabian Dance, Chinese Dance, Pas de Deux, and the Waltz of the Flowers.

“What I find extraordinary is how they get all the amazing range from the orchestra in the transcription for the piano,” says Alexandra. “In concert, you have to make it sound as if it’s a whole orchestra with all the different colours and textures of every instrument.”

Choreographer, Jenna LeePhoto Jenna Lee
Choreographer, Jenna Lee
Photo Jenna Lee

It was Gavin who suggested former ENB soloist Jenna Lee as choreographer, for who the project has brought particular challenges. She explains, “Normally, when I choreograph in the studio, I can see what the product will look like on stage, but that’s not always so here. Yeast Culture can really enhance the magic, float someone in on a cloud, for example.”

Jenna continues, “Sometimes they’ve governed me with a storyboard, as in the battle scene. Every five or ten seconds there was what they thought might happen. With some other numbers, like the Arabian Dance, it was much more choreographic. The pas de deux has been different because, obviously, our Clara can’t be lifted because there’s no one there to lift her. I was conscious I really wanted to get some partner work in there, though. It’s been a massive sort of learning curve.”

Although the Prince will be animated, rehearsals were initially with a real male dancer. But every time something was done, Jenna had to turn to her Clara and ask, ‘Is this possible by yourself?’ Amy Drew (who will dance the 8pm concert with Désirée Ballantyne dancing at 6pm), explains, “While the more difficult parts of the pas de deux have an animated couple, there are large sections where you’re basically doing it on your own, but making sure you’re in the right place so it looks as if the animated Prince is partnering a pirouette or helping on a balance. That is difficult, because although you are doing some fairly difficult steps as if there was a partner there, you are actually on your own”

Dancer Amy Drew all set up for motion capture so the animated figures can be matched precisely to her dance
Dancer Amy Drew all set up for motion capture so the animated figures can be matched precisely to her dance
Photo Jenna Lee

Another layer to the usual challenges of choreographing a new piece has been having to create around characters and digital sets still in the imaginations of the animators. “We had to have in our mind’s eye just where things would be. I’m looking forward to working with the animations for real, making sure we are very precise with our spacing, all of that kind of thing,” adds Amy.

‘The Nutcracker and I’ has also had to be choreographed in a very linear fashion to make it believable, to make it look like they are always together, explains Jenna. “Normally you use a lot of depth, and when there’s a big crescendo in the music you might do a lovely finger pirouette or a fish dive, but you can’t have that. It can also get complicated if the amimated figure passes by Clara. There’s been a bit of back and forth and knowing that maybe what you create might not work for them.”

Fortunately, explains Jenna, they will have ten days at the Barbican to work with the projections. That sounds a long time. “But for it to look realistic, the dancer has to be very precise every time. They have to make sure they are in the right place every time, because the projection is not going to change.”

Amy Drew and her virtual PrincePhoto Yeast Culture
Amy Drew and her virtual Prince
Photo Yeast Culture

Amy agrees. “There will certainly be no room for spacing mistakes, she laughs. “There will be no human error unless it’s mine! The other thing is that you can’t then blame them, can you! It’ll be entirely down to me if something’s in the wrong place.”

Alexandra, Jenna and Amy are all bubbling with anticipation as they look forward to December’s premiere. “The fact that I won’t see how it is really coming together until a few days before the show is odd, but I’m super excited,” says Jenna. “I think it’s something that will translate really well. I really hope it takes off,” adds Amy.

Alexandra says, “I am so blessed and fortunate to have such amazing people that work so well together, because we didn’t know each other at all beforehand. It just feels so united. We are having fun working together.”

Alexandra DariescuPhoto Andrew Mason
Alexandra Dariescu
Photo Andrew Mason

Apart from having a wonderful night of music, dance and animation, what Alexandra hopes people take away from ‘The Nutcracker and I’, especially new concertgoers, is “the notion that classical music is really accessible, and that when you combine the arts, piano with dance and amazingly cool technology, you can achieve a new work of art.” Going back to it being her story, she adds, “I think the main thing for me is ‘dare to dream’. Whatever your dream is, follow it.”

Part of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Alumni Recital Series, ‘The Nutcracker and I’, by Alexandra Dariescu, has its world premiere on Tuesday 19 December at 6pm with another performance at 8pm, at Milton Court at London’s Barbican Centre. Click here for details.

The premiere will be followed by performances in Moscow’s International Performing Arts Centre, the Stavanger International Chamber Music Festival in Norway and a tour to China.