At Christmas, we yearn for home or at least the memory of home as it was when we were children.
And apart from carols, nothing evokes Christmas past like popular music, from Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, Frank Sinatra’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart, by Wham! and Jose Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad.
Our favourite depends on our age but there’s one musical backdrop to Christmas that’s ageless - as appealing to children as it is to their grandparents.
Tchaikovsky’s score for Nutcracker with its march, gallop, polka and waltzes is the marker of December, especially in the United States, otherwise known as ‘Nutcracker Nation’.
This year in Australia both the Queensland Ballet and the Australian Ballet ended their 2014 seasons with Nutcracker, both staging much loved productions, Ben Stevenson’s in Brisbane and Sir Peter Wright’s in Sydney.
Sir Peter Wright's Nutcracker for the Australian Ballet - Photo © Jeff Busby
The Australian Ballet has four Nutcrackers in its repertoire, including two of my personal favourites, the productions of Graeme Murphy and Sir Peter.
Inside the company Murphy’s work is nicknamed Gumnut-cracker for its Australian narrative that tells the story of how ballet came to Australia from the Russian dancers who toured to Australia and settled here, and the birth of the Borovansky Ballet.
The first Nutcracker, created by Marius Petipa in collaboration with Tchaikovsky was staged in St Petersburg in 1892 and choreographed by Lev Ivanov when Petipa became ill. This trio could never have imagined how it flowered in the 20th century with at least 30 more Nutcrackers including one set partly in a hospital ward (Gary Harris, for the Royal New Zealand Ballet) and another whose young heroine, Clara, lives in the orphanage of a Dr Sugar (Matthew Bourne, for Adventures in Motion Pictures).
Nutcracker is such a strong presence around the world that it’s hard to remember that there are other Christmas ballets, among them A Christmas Carol, based on Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer (bah humbug!) Scrooge.
With sets reflecting a picture postcard Christmas in the Victorian age, the ballet was commissioned by Christopher Gable in 1992 when he was artistic director of the Northern Ballet Theatre in England.
Gable’s collaborators were the choreographer, Massimo Moricone, the designer Lez Brotherston and the composer Carl Davis, whose score included traditional Christmas carols.
This year the Royal New Zealand Ballet took the ballet into its repertoire. Maybe one day someone in Australia will be bold enough to replace Nutcracker in favour of A Christmas Carol, even if it’s just a one-off diversion from the traditional choice.
Long before Nutcracker established its place in the festive season the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, first danced a divertissement called Christmas, choreographed by Ivan Clustine, in 1916.
Her biographer, Keith Money, described how she danced the role of a carefree beauty arriving at a Christmas party with an escort and then flirted with four men who showered her with gifts.
Money thinks that Frederick Ashton was inspired by Pavlova’s Christmas when he choreographed Marguerite and Armand in 1963.
Pavlova brought Christmas to Australia on her first tour of1926 and for her next tour, three years later, she brought signed photos of herself in the luscious costume she wore for the divertissement. The photo taken at the Paris studio, Atelier d’Ora, was given to those who supported her in Australia, among them the Melbourne ballet teacher, Eunice Weston, and the artist and publisher, Sydney Ure Smith, whose magazine Home, featured Pavlova in photographic spreads.
'Anna Pavalova - Courtesy of the State Library of NSW'
Christmas means something else in the world of ballet - the Christmas concert, with all the excitement that means to students and all the stress for teachers. For the parents, there’s the driving back and forth to the studio, the cost and care of the costumes, the nerves when their little ones are about to step onto the stage, and, at the end, the tears of happiness and pride.
Those memories mean more to us than any Nutcracker. Unless, of course, you danced in Nutcracker as a child. My first ballet teacher was brave enough to stage Nutcracker for the Christmas concert.
I can still hear her voice, alternately coaxing and yelling, as she led the Flowers in their waltz, the Mice into their battle, and the toy Soldiers into line. Now that’s a Christmas memory I will never erase!
Author: Valerie Lawson
Valerie is an author and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. She is the former Arts Editor and Dance Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (1990 to 2009). Valerie was also the Dance Critic for The Australian Financial Review (1994-2002). At Fairfax Media she was the Foundation Editor of The Good Weekend Magazine as well as the Times on Sunday. Today Valerie is a freelance writer and her articles are published in newspapers and magazines around the globe including the theatre programs of The Australian Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet National of Cuba, Hamburg Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, English National Ballet, Nerderland Dans Theatre and Sydney Festival.
In addition to her numerous journal articles, Valerie is the author of three non-fiction books Connie Sweetheart (1990), The Allens Affair (1995) and Mary Poppins She Wrote, a biography of Pamela Travers (1999). Valerie is currently writing a history of ballet in Australia and we at Amy Louise Dance are honoured that she agreed to be our first blog author.
Valerie trained at the Royal Academy of Dance schools in New Zealand. In addition to holding a Teaching Diploma from the Royal Academy of Dance, Valerie graduated with a B.Phil (Hons) in Ballet and Contextual Studies from the University of Durham, United Kingdom (2002). In 2010 she was awarded the Nancy Keesing Fellowship at he State Library of New South Wales where she researched the ballet and dance collections. Recently, she launched her own website www.dancelines.com.au in which she covers developments and events in the dance industry from around the globe. This is a wonderful resource not only for lovers of dance, but young budding professional dancers who need to have a sound knowledge of who's who and what is happening in the dance world. We encourage you to visit Valerie's website (click the image below) and subscribe