After the death of the founder of Ballet Russes (Russian Ballet), Sergei Diaghilev, in 1929, the original company — which during its short history included esteemed dancers such as Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova and collaborators like Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky — dispersed to establish other ballet companies across the world.
The antipodean expeditions, from 1936 to 1940, organized by Diaghilev’s successor, the grandly named impresario Colonel Wassily de Basil, had a huge impact and lasting effect on Australian life and cultural identity. In 2006, The Australian Ballet, the National Library of Australia and the University of Adelaide embarked on a four-year collaborative project titled “Ballet Russes in Australia: Our Cultural Revolution” to honor the profound impression these episodes had on the Australian artistic landscape.
In the final year of the project, choreographer Graeme Murphy’s 1992 interpretation of “The Nutcracker,” renamed “Nutcracker — The Story of Clara,” was revived. Created to celebrate The Australian Ballet’s 30th anniversary, Murphy’s “Nutcracker” tells the tale of a former Russian ballerina living in Melbourne, who remembers and relives her eventful career on Christmas Eve, 1950. It is essentially a tribute to the Russian dancers who made Australia their home during the 1930s and ’40s and helped inspire and create some of the country’s leading ballet companies, including the early foundations of The Australian Ballet.
The company, in its 31st international tour and 6th tour of Japan, is now performing “Nutcracker — The story of Clara” for the first time outside of Australia. It will also stage Murphy’s revolutionary twist on “Swan Lake,” which was created to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary and was last seen by Japanese audiences in 2007.
I n a recent e-mail interview, David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, explained that the Russian influence on Australian ballet is still fundamental to understanding the country’s artistic history.
“The European history of Australia is built on a series of migrant stories, so it is very much a part of the culture of white Australia,” he said. “The history of ballet in our country was truly embraced by the tours of the Ballets Russes in the 1930s and ’40s. Their stories are hugely important to our cultural history and I believe they are beautifully portrayed in this work.
“I think Japanese audiences will enjoy this new journey through our ‘Nutcracker.’ Many Japanese people have visited Australia over recent decades, so I hope it may bring back some happy memories of our country.”
Murphy’s “Swan Lake,” which took as its creative starting point the British Royal Family’s affaire de coeur involving Prince Charles, Lady Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles, has played to international acclaim since its premiere in 2002 and astonished Japanese audiences on the company’s last tour in 2007.
Murphy and his wife Janet Vernon, his longtime creative partner, have had a lasting and fruitful relationship with The Australian Ballet, beginning when they started their careers with the company in the late ’60s. He was also its resident choreographer for a short time before becoming the artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company, where he continues to create works for The Australian Ballet.
McAllister added, “It’s wonderful for us to have a choreographer who can interpret classic 19th-century ballets for us in a way that resonates so personally with a contemporary audience. The emotional nature of his works really challenges the dancers to invest their whole artistic capacity, and I believe it does that in every way, both technically and artistically.
Although Murphy’s interpretations of classical ballets are radical in terms of staging, costumes and action, he does remain faithful to the classical pieces by keeping the original Tchaikovsky scores.
Both “Nutcracker — The Story of Clara” and “Swan Lake” have been recognized as two of the best and most innovative ballets ever to come out of Australia and have cemented Murphy’s reputation as being one of the world’s foremost choreographers. Modern, and considered experimental by some, the productions open the closeted world of ballet to everybody and they link the rich cultural history of Australia to the multicultural and dynamic present.
McAllister, who has been artistic director of The Australian Ballet since 2001 and has toured Japan with the company on four separate occasions, hopes the Japanese audiences, whom he calls “one of the most educated audiences for ballet in the world,” can connect with and embrace both productions.
“I think both are familiar ballets that take the audience on a different journey,” he said. “They are both lavish works that are very emotional and highlight the unique qualities of our Australian dancers. We are often told that our dancers are fearless, committed and take many technical and artistic risks in their performances. I think these two works show those qualities and reflect our desire to honor the traditions of classical narrative ballet in a way that inspires a 21st-century audience.”
“Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker — The Story of Clara” are both showing at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, Ueno Park, Taito-ku. Tickets range from ¥5,000 to ¥16,000. “Swan Lake” performances are on Oct. 9, 10 and 11, 3 p.m. “Nutcracker” performances are on Oct. 15, 6:30 p.m.; and on Oct. 16, 17, 3 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit www.nbs.or.jp/english or call (03) 5721 8000. The Australian Ballet then visits the Aichi Prefectural Arts Theater in Nagoya to perform “Swan Lake.” Tickets range from ¥6,000 to ¥19,000. The performance is on Oct. 21, starting at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.aac.pref.aichi.jp or call (052) 957-3333.