West Australian Ballet’s The Nutcracker transports audiences to a magical world in which toys are alive and dreams become reality. Jayne Smeulders, Sandy Delasalle-Scannella and Aurélien Scannella’s choreography decorates Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ambrosial score with dreamlike technical brilliance in this exceptional production.
Act One opens on Drosselmeyer’s Toy Emporium, with a backdrop that spans the entire stage, complete with falling snow. ‘London 1839’ is scrawled subtly across the sky in wafts of chimney smoke, gradually becoming more prominent as the twilight fades to darkness and lights grow brighter in the glowing windows. The doors of the emporium open dramatically to reveal Drosselmeyer (on opening night, Juan Carlos Osma) making toys, his glittering costume equally at home with the gathering dusk and the warmth of the toyshop.
Soon enough, the scenery changes to Eton Place, where families stroll through the winter snow. Gift-carrying children participate in snowball fights on their way to a decadent Christmas party. The adults are dressed elegantly without appearing overly-identical and the children’s costumes are sweetly delightful. Sixteen guest artists between the ages of eight and 14 take part in this performance, all of them impressive in their acting, as well as their dancing.
The next opulent set comes complete with a grandfather clock, a portrait-decorated fireplace and a Christmas tree surrounded by gifts. Drosselmeyer arrives at the Christmas party in a puff of smoke to greet the children, which include his niece and nephew, Clara (Carina Roberts) and Fritz (Matthew Edwardson). Drosselmeyer entertains the children with magic tricks, levitating his cane and materialising a pair of dancing clowns, who pirouette and cartwheel across the stage with dollish movements.
Then, he turns the clowns into toys and gives them to the children to play with. As creepy as this sounds, the children are overjoyed. Clara and Fritz battle it out for a particular nutcracker doll, beheading him in their fight for possession. This is played off as being comedic rather than frightening, despite the pre-established implication that a degree of sentience exists within Drosselmeyer’s toys.
Clara prevails, ending up with the freshly-fixed nutcracker. When the guests have gone home and the room is in darkness, Clara sneaks out to play with the nutcracker. Ominous fog creeps across the floor, and the grandfather clock strikes midnight. A mechanical rat appears, narrowly preceding the return of Drosselmeyer, whose dancing intensifies as the decor levitates, and the nutcracker is turned into the Nutcracker Prince (Gakuro Matsuri).
Giant rats sail in on a ship and attempt to kidnap Clara, but the Nutcracker Prince and his army of toy soldiers intervene. Sword fights and cannon ball booms ensue in a (sometimes comical) battle, in which Clara saves the Nutcracker Prince from the Rat King.
Eventually, Drosselmeyer transports his niece and her now-sentient toy to an array of other worlds, all of them dreamlike. As the story progresses, the ballet feels more and more like a visually remarkable fever dream.
A Snow Queen (Chihiro Nomura) appears amid stunning snowflake scenery, for an impressive pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince. Snowflakes flutter to the stage, falling over a series of well-executed lifts in a dance of beautiful symmetry. Clara jetes across the expanse of a snowflake-filled palace, her exuberance and delight utterly palpable.
Act Two begins above the clouds, with a backdrop depicting the moon, a clock and a skyline of chimney stacks. Clara, her uncle Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince traverse the clouds in a fur-lined sleigh. The night sky is cleverly constructed, with dotted stars of literal light. This backdrop lifts to reveal the most opulent set so far, with tall columns and swirls of gold detail.
In total, 160 costumes necessitated 50,000 individual hand-positioned dots of glitter, 10,000 metres of fabric and 200 individual hair pieces. The Sugarplum Fairy (also Chihiro Nomura) is the epitome of elegance, her gold and silver tutu a work of art in itself as she and the Nutcracker Prince move together with measured expression. Clara’s dress, which is white with a high bodice and sequinned skirt, is simple and unassuming, but yet so charming. Charles Cusick Smith’s costume design is ambitiously resplendent in every instance, from the uncanny Nutcracker, to the delectable trio with pink, white and blue outfits as shiny and appealing as sweet wrappers.
The Nutcracker’s visual magnificence comprises an array of exquisite backdrops and unique props, from bespoke handmade toys to realistic town façades. Phil R Daniels’ multilayered layered set design casts spells of real life magic over an appreciative audience, while Jon Buswell’s sophisticated lighting is nothing short of genius – capable of turning one set into 10, using degrees of darkness and light to impressive effect.
Tchaikovsky’s score brings this production to life, just as Drosselmeyer does with his toys. Jessica Gethin conducts the West Australian Philharmonic Orchestra in a flawless orchestral performance, while principals, soloists and the corps de ballet convey multiplicities through movement in exclusively exquisite performances.
The Nutcracker is ephemeral yet timeless with its iconic score, hallucinatory storyline and kinetic storytelling. This aesthetically satisfying ballet is a decadent dessert for the optical senses. It will resonate with children, adults and dolls of all ages.
His Majesty’s Theatre, WA
Choreographers: Jayne Smeulders, Sandy Delasalle-Scannella, Aurélien Scannella
Set Designer: Phil R Daniels
Costume Designer: Charles Cusick Smith
Lighting Designer: Jon Buswell
Associate Lighting Designer: Mick Rippon
Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Musical Arranger: Michael Brett
Cast: Carina Roberts, Juan Carlos Osma, Gakuro Matsuri, Chihiro Nomura, Matthew Edwardson
Tickets: $35 – $193
The Nutcracker will be performed until 10 December 2023.