A bevy of black swans circled our car parked near to the lake’s edge. It was my first encounter with a black swan, nose to beak, separated only by a wind-up wind-down window pane. I would have been no taller than one of the swans, had I’ve been out of the car. I remember feeling awestruck by their scale, their very presence. And yet as I was four-years-of-age, or thereabouts, is this a later addition stitched to a memory derived from family folklore? My Mum recalled one of the swans hopped up on the car’s bonnet, but wonders now if such a spectacle is likely. A small car buried beneath a mountain of feathered bodies, it is almost a cartoon image — better yet, a cinematic one — when viewed from a human perspective. In territorial union to our intrusion, the swans rallied, and looped for me a definitive impression of swans, lakes, and Tchaikovsky.
The swans of my memory and family folklore were not so unlike the hissing, awe-inspiring Chimeras within Jean-Christophe Maillot’s LAC, a modern telling of Swan Lake, performed with attack by the renowned Ballets de Monte-Carlo. Imposing, glorious, memorable.
In LAC, Maillot, together with writer Jean Rouaud, resurrected “these buried experiences”, albeit against a more “Machiavellian, family backdrop …. to present a ballet of contrasts. The change from animal into human being infuse[d] the entire work and question[ed] our own nature. We believe that we differ from animals because of our ability to make choices. But is this all we are capable of? …. Perhaps our humanity ultimately lies in this unsophisticated insatiability that defines us from our first cry — We want everything!”
Murphy’s Nutcracker loops freely from summertime in late 1950s Australia back to snow-cloaked Imperial Russia before launching towards the 1917 Russian Revolution, in the way that memory does, and the musical score, in turn, can be read. Clara’s memory maps her life as a star of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before touring with Colonel de Basil to the homelands of previous divertissements: Spain, Egypt, China, and, naturally, the addition of Melbourne. Clara’s final performance is also the birth of a company, the newly formed Borovansky Ballet. To sweep such rich terrain in an evening, Clara’s story is told through three different performers, from Child Clara (Jessica Stratton-Smith) to Young Clara, performed by Leanne Stojmenov (on opening night) and Dimity Azoury (on Tuesday night), and Ai-Gul Gaisina and Chrissa Keramidas (on opening and Tuesday nights respectively) as Clara the Elder. Stojmenov not only taps into but epitomises fluid-shifting remembrance and loss, and ultimately resilience with such tactile conviction, rendering her spine elastic yet unbreakable in every intimate lift with Kevin Jackson as her Soldier/Lover. Great love never dims, it merely changes shape, and their connection and faith in each other feels all the deeper for beginning at the end.
From Hills Hoist to the Argus newspaper calls, the Australian gumtree angle works because it is presented as a truth. It is not (self-) consciously laid on thick; it is merely there. A mirror. This is us. A part of our dance history. These are scenes we recognise. Clara the Elder’s apartment is one we’ve all sat in, either in real life, or in a story where perhaps we wished we had a relative who had spent their formative years on the stage. As Clara the Elder, both Gaisina and Keramidas appeared to shine from inside out. To paraphrase Murphy, just as you hear Tchaikovsky poured his heart into the score, the same can be said of the light-footed recollections of Gaisina and Keramidas as Ballet Russes émigrés. Where past is in contrast to present, and Russian society is shown in contrast to a life of exile in Australia, the time spent in Act I with Clara and her émigré friends (Frank Leo, Colin Peasley OAM, Terese Power et al.) is what enables Nutcracker to hit you in the guts when the curtain closes. The body as it gets older cannot do what it might earlier have done with ease. This is the cruelty of age. And this is strength, beauty, and the importance of connections forged with others. If ever there was a call to follow your dreams, this celebration of a lived experience being that which makes us richer is it. It is precisely the amount of time spent in her apartment that is why, I believe, we feel a lump in our throat or a tear on our cheek when Clara dies. We cannot know what has been lost without knowing what is. Nostalgia colours the past, but it also informs the present and alters the future. "Time does not help us make sense of our otherwise jumbled lives; our jumbled lives help us make sense of time."
In his own cabinet of natural curiosities, the Amsterdam-based pharmacist, Albertus Seba (1665–1736), placed exotic plants and corals, birds and butterflies, and slithering snakes alongside shells in fantastical fanned formations to delight the eye. In the Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director, David McAllister’s first full-length production and choreographic debut with a staging of Petipa and Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, it is not hard to surmise that as a long-term former dancer with the company and now at the helm as director for his fifteenth year, McAllister himself has constructed something of his own golden ‘wunderkammer’ with this work. A production replete with gold sprinkling from the ceiling, twinkling chandeliers, round like jellyfish, and greened nymphs that weave in and out like a serpentine vine; a true baroque ‘irregular pearl’ of a ballet, years in the making, and legacy building.
In McAllister’s 2015 Beauty, treasure is plentiful and I, too, as wily collector, set to furnishing my growing collection of ballet keepsakes and highlights. With their raggedy rat-tails and long white noses that call to mind Seba-worthy conical shells, I will add Carabosse’s quintet of mischief-makers to my wonder chamber. Though I very much doubt guest artist and former principal, the fabulously vengeful, Lynette Wills, as the wronged Carabosse, will spare them without a fight. So, too, the ornate shell-like columns, designed by Gabriela Tylesova, which appear en pointe. Resting on tiny tips, eight columns that in architectural reality could not support a ceiling, but in the transformative world of the theatre (where belief, amongst other things, is defied), twirl upwards with aplomb. This is nature, but with the emphasis on it polished, made fanciful, and presented as a fairy tale. The objective: to unashamedly delight.