The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu is Perfect for the Young at Heart

20/12/2017

Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu: Milton Court, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, 19.12.2017. (JPr)

The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu, with ballerina Désirée Ballantyne, animations by Yeast Culture, and choreography by Jenna Lee. At Milton Court Concert Hall, Guildhall School of Music & Drama as part of their Alumni Recital Series Photo by Mark Allan

The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu (c) Mark Allan

Performed and produced by Alexandra Dariescu

Ballerina – Désirée Ballantyne
Animated characters – Luke Cinque-White, Brittanie Dillon, Harry Alexander and Matthew Morrell
Director – Nick Hillel
Art director and director of animation – Adam Smith
Choreographer – Jenna Lee
Technical producer – Sander Loonen
Video design – Yeast Culture

Disney will be releasing The Nutcracker and the Four Realms in time for next Christmas. That is a live-action version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 novel The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Tchaikovsky’s more familiar The Nutcracker ballet, Mackenzie Foy plays Clara, a young girl who finds a key to a mysterious parallel universe. There, she encounters gingerbread soldiers, an army of mice, and a tyrant – isn’t there always one? – played by Helen Mirren. Keira Knightley stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy and helps Clara on her journey. Morgan Freeman is Drosselmeyer, and the famous ballerina Misty Copeland features as one of the lead dancers with a solo sequence in the film.

This Christmas – and at a fraction of the cost of the Disney film – there was the opportunity to see something similar with the premiere of Alexandra Dariescu’s Nutcracker and I at Milton Court. It is far less starry and just involves Dariescu at a grand piano performing 15 virtuosic arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s ballet score by Stepan Esipoff, Mikhail Pletnev, Percy Grainger and Tchaikovsky himself, as well as, three brand new ones by Gavin Sutherland, the music director of English National Ballet. We hear all we expect to, including, The Battle, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Arabian Dance, Russian Dance (Trepak), Chinese Dance, Grand Pas de Deux, and Waltz of the Flowers. All are performed by Dariescu who displayed impressive endurance, technical virtuosity, flamboyance and brio over 50 minutes of music. If that Disney film is half as much fun as this tremendous multimedia event proved to be, then it will be something to see!

When reviewing the Royal Ballet’s thoroughly enjoyable The Nutcracker recently (review click here) I mentioned its rather ‘old-fashioned’ magical effects and commented: ‘Indeed, children will see pantos in their local towns and cities this Christmas with much more real magic in them than this Nutcracker. Ballet needs to better embrace new technology soon – especially more video – whilst ensuring it remains at the service of the dance and does not swamp it.’

Although I cannot credit myself with the gift of foresight, what The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu gives us goes someway to addressing this issue. It cannot be entirely described as ‘live’ – apart from Dariescu’s playing and Désirée Ballantyne’s dancing – nor fully ‘animated’, but it is a remarkable blending of both as only that ‘new technology’ of the twenty-first century can achieve. (For those of an older generation, think about the musical number in the movie Anchors Aweigh when Gene Kelly dances seamlessly with the animated Jerry Mouse.) Eventually in The Nutcracker and I you realise – that apart from the delicate and romantic Ballantyne – you are applauding the prowess and partnering of a digitally created Prince after their pas de deux! ‘He’ has been wonderfully brought to ‘life’ – like all the other characters – by the excellence of Yeast Culture who are responsible for all the video design and the near-perfect projection on a gauze screen. The dancing of the credited performers – Luke Cinque-White, Brittanie Dillon, Harry Alexander and Matthew Morrell – in Jenna Lee’s choreography is recreated splendidly in all the apparently hand drawn animations. These follow the music and engage with the pianist and the ballerina and indeed – as the publicity says – all those young at heart in the audience can ‘feel like they are actually in and a part of The Nutcracker story’.

The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu, with ballerina Désirée Ballantyne, animations by Yeast Culture, and choreography by Jenna Lee. At Milton Court Concert Hall, Guildhall School of Music & Drama as part of their Alumni Recital Series Photo by Mark Allan

Alexandra Dariescu (piano), Amy Drew (ballerina) and the Prince (c) Mark Allan

From the moment an animated little girl wanders on at the beginning to transform into Dariescu at her piano and snowflakes begin to fall on the screen, it was spellbinding right through to the perfectly ‘choreographed’ Finale and the curtain calls. If it had been possible I would have loved to see it all again because there was so much to enjoy, and so much I probably missed on a first viewing. There is an accompanying CD and book of The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu (to be released on Signum Records next April) where Jessica Duchen ‘puts into words this very personal story which sees Dariescu re-imagine herself as Clara: from little girl dreaming to concert pianist: whilst the magic of the exquisite live digital animations is translated into the book’s artwork by their creators.’ Dariescu’s admirable aim though this and her performances of The Nutcracker and I is ‘to reach out to new audiences who might not have considered coming to a classical concert before.’ I am always surprised I do have readers for these reviews – and I do thankfully! – and those familiar with my writing will know how I often comment on how the audience at concerts, opera and ballet, needs rejuvenating and I applaud Dariescu’s vision in attempting to address this.

After Christmas Eve at home where presents and decorations for the tree burst forth from the piano we are taken on Clara/Dariescu’s engrossing journey to her becoming that concert pianist and performing an incandescent The Waltz of the Flowers for the Prince at the end. Along the way we encounter most of the characters we expect to, such as, the Nutcracker, the Mouse King, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince, although I didn’t spot the magician Drosselmeyer. We can gaze – possibly open-mouthed as I was – as we travel from Dariescu’s ‘home’ to the Land of Sweets before ending up at its Prince’s palace.

The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu proved a transformative experience for an old cynic like me and almost makes me believe in fairies and Father Christmas! Praise cannot be high enough for Dariescu’s vision which has been realised so superbly by Nick Hillel (director), Adam Smith (animations), Jenna Lee (choreography), Sander Loonen (technical producer) and the video wizardry of Yeast Culture.

Jim Pritchard

For more about what is on at Milton Court click here and for more about Alexandra Dariescu click here.

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