Invitation to the dance
To make a new production of The Nutcracker for The Australian Ballet, Graeme Murphy had to find real-life emotion in a spun-sugar fairytale.
The year was 1992 and Graeme Murphy had hatched a clever plan. He had an idea for a stunning overhaul of The Nutcracker, but that idea relied on convincing one of the great names in Australian dance to come out of retirement after a hiatus of 40 years. The plan involved pink champagne, smoked salmon and – as it turned out – one very convincing storyteller: Murphy.
An invitation duly went out to Dame Margaret Scott, the founding artistic director of The Australian Ballet School and Murphy’s own former teacher and mentor. She was asked to brunch at the coastal apartment Murphy shares with his partner and creative associate, Janet Vernon. Dame Margaret and her husband Professor Derek ‘Dick’ Denton accepted, albeit a little sceptically, as Murphy had already hinted he wanted to discuss a role for her in his new production for The Australian Ballet.
“I’d had a fairly ‘Oh, really, Graeme’ response from her, because he saw it as simply being one of the old aunties in a traditional roduction,” Murphy says today. What Dame Margaret couldn’t ave known was that Murphy was planning a radically new nterpretation of the Christmas classic, one that focused on lara, the little girl at the centre of this famous tale. Not only hat, but this Australianbased story would be told through the yes of an ageing ballerina looking back at her life, with all the joy and paint nostalgia that envolkes.
“We invited her and Dick up here and we had smoked salmon and I cracked a bottle of beautiful pink French champagne and moved the tables in place so she was trapped! Then I told them the story, like they were children. They listened with great intensity. And at the end of it she said, ‘OK, I’ll do it’.”
Securing Dame Margaret was a major achievement, but it was by no means the only hurdle the new production faced. The first challenge for Murphy had been how to re-tell the traditional story. And why do it in the first place? In fact, when the then Artistic Director Maina Gielgud first approached Murphy about staging The Nutcracker for The Australian Ballet his inclination was to politely decline.
“I think Maina thought I would keep the original and I was almost going to say no, as the story was so flimsy. I’m always one to look for a meaningful story, and it would have been very hard for me to take the original story and concept when the music for me was screaming something else. I also needed to find something that didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, because Nutcracker above all classical ballets is the one with the most expectation around it. So I had to keep a remnant, and wrap it around a story that at least made some sense.”
Gielgud had long been supportive of Murphy, who was then the artistic director of Sydney Dance Company; she had staged a co-production between The Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company at London’s Royal Opera House as part of Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations in 1988. But this would be Murphy’s first full-length work for The Australian Ballet. When he outlined his ideas for an Australian adaptation of this European classic, Gielgud listened carefully before giving him the green light. But how to adapt this story, rich with Christmas snow and sugarplums, for an Australian audience more accustomed to sweltering summers and beachside celebrations? “You were thinking about Russian ballet and how so many Russian companies had toured to Australia, then the dancers were trapped here during the war, and they formed so much of what became our dance scene today. Then you got thinking: Clara!” Vernon reminds Murphy. (She oversaw Sydney Dance Company’s European tour so Murphy could create his new work.) “It was a great departure point,” says Murphy. “Suddenly it all made sense, because of the Russian influence on dance in Australia.”
Far from being the simple tale of a young girl who falls asleep under a Christmas tree and has a fanciful dream of soldiers and rats and dancing sweets, Murphy’s story would centre on a young ballerina forced to flee to Paris after her soldier lover is killed in the Russian Revolution. She would join Sergei Diaghilev’s famed Ballets Russes and travel the world, before touring to Australia, where she would ultimately remain. One of a close-knit group of ageing Russian émigrés, she would forever cherish and be haunted by her memories of Russia, her lover, and her enduring love of dance. It was the story of Clara.
“When you take something that’s inherently fanciful and weave some truths into it, that for me works,” says Murphy. “And if you can find a context dancers relate to they will invest so much more.”
Today, Murphy is regarded as one of Australia’s most talented interpreters of the ballet classics, a choreographer who balances a respectful acknowledgment for tradition while keenly drawing out a contemporary relevance and meaning. His productions of Swan Lake and Firebird (The Australian Ballet) and Giselle (Universal Ballet Company of South Korea) are testament to his ability.
Back then, however, he was untested, and the process was challenging. “It was hard. It was intense,” Murphy says of the astonishingly quick three-week choreographic window he gave himself, before flying to France to join his own dancers. “There were so many aspects to it: the theatrical aspect, the children’s dialogue, trying to make the older dancers more interesting and meaningful in an opening section which usually isn’t very interesting, just a bit of a kiddies’ romp.”
But Murphy had a trump card. He is the first to acknowledge that he couldn’t have done it without the extraordinary talents and input of his designer and co-conceiver, the late Kristian Fredrikson. A theatre reviewer turned set and costume esigner, Fredrikson was Murphy’s regular collaborator at Sydney Dance Company, a man with prodigious talent whose partnership with Murphy would prove seminal.
“When you collaborate it’s like ping pong, you throw ideas back and forwards,” says Murphy. “And the ball goes everywhere, it’s so fabulous,” adds Vernon. “Kristian was a fierce opponent, he’d bounce things back,” continues Murphy. “And he was so knowledgeable, he had that literary ability, he could take the abstract poetry of dance and turn it into poetic words. And his designs were exquisitely evocative.”
Fredrikson revelled in the design possibilities their Nutcracker opened up, moving as it did from Russia and 1920s Paris to post-war Australia. “Kristian and I got very passionate about this one, very excited. And he loved putting in those turn-of-thecentury costumes, we went straight back to the Russian Imperial Ballet and of course the fabulous 20s for the touring costumes. He was in fashion heaven. It covers 70 years: Clara’s life,” Murphy says.
If Murphy found the choreographic and technical process challenging, the same can certainly be said for the physical and artistic demands he placed on his dancers. Company members today speak in reverential, near-fearful tones of the ‘Murphy choreography’, which requires a whole new level of fitness and artistry.
Like the company dancers, Dame Margaret did not escape with mere mime. “She was so nervous,” recalls Murphy. “I don’t think she quite understood she’d be in every act and just how physical the role was going to be. She ended up doing much more than I had choreographed, because she wanted more. She is now, as she was then and always will be, a dancer. She’s always welcome in my rehearsal room, because she brings gravitas just by being there.”
Dame Margaret shared the role of Clara the Elder with another cherished luminary of Australian ballet, the late Valrene Tweedie. Scott would return to the show eight years later, before handing over the role to others who would make their own indelible mark: Marilyn Jones and Ai-Gul Gaisina.
Nutcracker – The Story of Clara was ultimately a mutual gift. Murphy relates Dame Margaret’s reaction in 1992, following opening night. “She said, ‘When you were 14 I invited you into the dance. And when you were 40 you invited me back to the dance.’ The magic of a great teacher is about teaching people to be curious. That show bonded us forever.”
In reviewing the 2009 production, dance critic Michelle Potter referred to Nutcracker – The Story of Clara as “one of the great treasures of The Australian Ballet’s repertoire” and “the closest thing we have in Australia to a dance masterpiece.” For Murphy it was the ultimate satisfaction. “It felt like something had been achieved,” he says. “There was an avalanche of journalistic approval. They said, ‘This is Australian ballet’. There was something resonant about that work that made people feel we’d come of age.”
Jane Albert is an author and freelance journalist specialising in the arts.