Universal Genius: how Tchaikovsky became Australian

05 May 2009 | By Kate Scott

Music Director Nicolette Fraillon had long been fascinated by how Graeme Murphy managed to take Nutcracker, music so quintessentially Russian, with such strongly embedded associations, and turn it into an uniquely Australian story. She finally had a chance to quiz him about what he did.

Nicolette: You’ve tackled two of the big Tchaikovsky ballets so far. Is there a particular affinity for Tchaikovsky?
Graeme: I really just lucked out. I would have liked to have done the trifecta and add The Sleeping Beauty to the mix but doing two is just a joy. From a point of view of music, it’s like the dream come true – those two works, for me, spell out dance; spell out movement.

Nutcracker, as we know, was written to a very specific brief. So how do you then approach something that – brilliant though it is – was quite a proscription work from a music point of view?
It’s strange, because with Swan Lake I thought the story was very much something that was written into the score, likewise with Nutcracker. But Nutcracker is sort of a no-story. There isn’t a real development of character. It’s quite abstract; almost like the journey through adolescence, which is the Hoffmann concept. So I really didn’t feel daunted too much by Nutcracker because it’s thin. I know it makes sense in terms of how it was conceived, but to me it makes no sense in terms of story.

It’s true that Tchaikovsky was heading towards abstract ballet and the study of the psychological where a story wasn’t important. But there are the really strong associations of things like the Sugar Plum Fairy; those fairytale elements – was it easy to let all of that go, or do you think about the public who expect a certain kind of Nutcracker?
It’s always terrifying, and Nutcracker more than any other work because there’s a whole audience who are wedded to a type of Nutcracker, which is children, escapism, a candy-cane world, that incredible ethnic journey. I did get a bit of hate mail out of Nutcracker.

Then you’ve done your job well.
It was inevitable. But then again, as with Swan Lake, I really tried to retain some of the magic that it was meant to conjure. It was harder with Nutcracker because I had a really strong concept of where I wanted to take it.

Did that come first?
I think what came first was my real desire to make it relevant to Australians. We’ve lived in the world of postcards with Christmas trees and lots of snow; Santa all rugged up. The minute I thought Nutcracker should be Christmas in Australia, something started happening. I started remembering some early Christmases in my childhood in Melbourne, and how steamy it was.

So you had a really strong concept, but was the music still a starting point for you? I know Kristian spent a long time with the scores.
I had a concept and I took the music, which has always been a little bit modular, and used it as building blocks to support my story. I tried to include everything. Sometimes I had a little trouble in segueing from something because of key but I would just cut and paste, which is very difficult for a person who’s not computer literate.

Do you read music yourself?
Very badly. I can play anything, as long as it’s over a three-hour period. [laughs] But I can read a score, yes.

Do you, then, when you’re developing a work?
Often not at all. With The Australian Ballet I have fabulous pianists who are always incredibly helpful. But for me it’s more important to know the music and have it internally ticking; your own little record player grinding along inside. I think if you are imbued with that music, if it’s really within you, you can produce reams of choreography that will actually phrase. I try not to stop when I’ve done a sequence of music because the link is so much more important than the block of movement.

When I look at your works and think about them as a conductor, it’s as if there are three different elements. There are the moments when there are the bars or the steps to the rhythmic patterns, or what I would call a literal translation of the music. There is the narrative where it seems to me that you have got right inside of the music, in which it’s about emotional as well as dramatic development. And there are the bits in between which are more of an abstract, conceptual exploration. Is that reasonable?
I think that’s really spot on. Above all, I belong to the old school where the music is the floor on which we dance. Understanding the music is the first crucial step. I often say to people that when I listen to music I actually see movement. And I don’t mean specifically. It’s an abstraction of physical movement that I see. I go to a concert, and I see the concert, I don’t hear it.

Are you then conscious – particularly when you’re constructing a big work – of where you’re using different elements to help create the dramatic flow of the story, or is it just something that comes naturally?
That’s the million-dollar question, really. You have a concept. It’s like how life is not a series of small events – everything gets mixed up and recreated. Past things have to make their echo into the future. When you’re doing a full-length work, you have to remember the audience’s span of concentration. If you include a motif, à la Nutcracker, you have to make sure that you either hit the audience immediately, or it’s subconsciously snuck into their brain, so when they see it three times before the end of the ballet they are actually responding to that motif. The architecture of choreography is so important. Steps are not so important.

I’m always attempting not to cliché myself, although audiences actually love a cliché. They like a series of movement followed by an arabesque that relates back into the movement. It’s a bit like a musician using a nice simple chord that always follows on.

The diatonic progression.
Knowing when to jar, knowing when to jolt, knowing when to make it not work is much more important. Drama, storytelling – I really care about it. I care about it even when I do abstract work, because you can’t abstract the human body – it will always be a human body. A person on stage-right and a person on stage-left immediately create a tension. When they touch in the middle – bang! The story has started.

For me, one of the most brilliant things about your Nutcracker is the second act, especially compared to other second acts which contain some of the most beautiful individual musical gems ever, but not a lot of dramatic flow. Your dilemma is my dilemma. It’s really interesting because my dilemma, both with Swan Lake and Nutcracker, were the ethnic dances that were simply a device to keep audiences happy. There was an expectation that the characters were going to go to far-off exotic places, but there was never any real reason why they should.

That’s why I think your Nutcracker is so brilliant. It’s that first act that often leaves me dissatisfied in the sugar-sweet versions. The stories are now legendary of Tchaikovsky having nightmares about what other people just see as a children’s story. He actually really understood it – it is a psychological exploration of our darker side.
The darkest underlying threat is of course death in my production. Death is present. And I think an audience have to be a little patient with my version. You have to get that connotation of loyalty to Clara from her colleagues, her former dancing friends; that sense of Russian camaraderie. You get explosions of great beauty – that pas de deux – but also the strangeness of midnight, the fear of death, and the clock striking. For me it was all there – once the concept was firmly in my mind I found the answers firmly in the music. As I said, the only thing that really terrified me were the ethnic dances, because of their kitschness. But they are still beautifully written, and making them work in context of Clara’s voyage to Australia was the best solution possible.

Did Nutcracker take many months to create?
No, it was actually quite extraordinary. The period of choreography was three and a half weeks of incredibly intense work. I had really good slabs of all-day rehearsal and I remember one weekend I thought, “I have to get out, I have to go to back to Sydney”. I sat on the aeroplane, ordered a scotch, drank two sips and got my first migraine. I must have let go of all that energy; the concentration of trying to do a work in such a short time, with the émigrés, with the kids, with the big pas de deux – all of that.

I didn’t come into any rehearsals with a step. I never do. If you do that, you exclude the dancer from the process of collaboration. It’s something about you, the dancer, the music in the room, that makes the chemistry and then you’re on a roll, or you’re not.

On that note, what kind of a role do the music staff – whether it’s a pianist or the conductor – play for you? When you’re recreating a work, is it hard working with different pianists and different conductors than you did originally?
It’s really hard. You create something that is sometimes on the edge of impossible if it’s
one millisecond faster. Sometimes you’re just dealing with the human ability to pass through that movement in that time. I have re-choreographed because I’ve originally choreographed to a version of the score that
a conductor doesn’t like.

This brings it back to you, Nicolette. You’ve probably had to play works in tempi that you totally disapprove of. Sometimes they’re the great classics and sometimes you get a ballerina that says, [adopts Russian accent] “Darling, I must hold this phrase, I can balance here”. So you’re sitting there hanging in, waiting for them to come off pointe, lose their balance and move on.

I’ve had to do things in tempi I’ve probably never wanted to do, but then if it’s really great choreography where I have faith that the choreographer understood music and wasn’t just using it as background ‘elevator music’, it’s up to me to try and understand where they were coming from.

I will invariably make discoveries, musical discoveries, about a piece because it takes me somewhere I didn’t think I was ever going to go, and it works. It’s really no different from working with a different orchestra in a different city, or different dancers. A musician will suddenly play something and the phrasing is quite different. Initially you’ll go, “Hmmm … Ahhh” and go away and think about, but it can be something so marvellous that then reshapes what I’ve done.

That’s the equivalent of me having different casts. Different casts have different length legs; they have a different sense of legato; they have a different sense of music; they have a different ballon. I’ve never done Nutcracker without a Maggie Scott or a Valrene Tweedie, and they won’t be doing this production to my great sadness, because time moves on and Valrene’s no longer here. I think the work is far too taxing at a certain age – you’re jumping out of beds in high buildings, literally. I hate those ballets where choreographers say, “I don’t care who you are, do it how the first ballerina did it.” That’s just not fair to a ballerina, to any dancer.

Is it only ever frustrating when you have different conductors or pianists come in?
No, I love flexibility. I love to see people, including dancers, on their journey of discovery with a piece, and that journey of discovery might be over three weeks in a Sydney Opera House season – they actually distil something and get rid of the unnecessary. Ultimately for me it’s about a dancer rejecting the image of themselves in a mirror, which is how they actually learn things, and becoming a mirror for an audience to see themselves. The mirror passes around the room and the ultimate artist is the one that shows the audience a reflection of themselves. It’s a beautiful thing.

This is an edited extract from a piece published in the Nutcracker – The Story of Clara 2009 souvenir programme

Rachel Rawlins and Rudy Hawlkes. Photography Tim Richardson