The 11th edition of the Samir Kassir Foundation’s Beirut Spring Festival opened with “The Nutcracker and I,” a whimsical reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, created by British-Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu.
Staged at Masrah al-Madina Sunday night, the 50-minute performance combines piano, ballet and hand-drawn animation by Yeast Culture to retell the much-loved Christmastime tale.
After premiering at London’s Milton Court Barbican in 2017, Dariescu embarked on a world tour, performing across Europe at the likes of Wiener Konzerthaus, Laeiszhalle Hamburg, Bozar Brussels and Philharmonie Luxembourg, as well as touring China, Australia and the United Arab Emirates.
The show begins with Dariescu at her a grand piano, visible behind a scrim (gauze screen). Projected onto the screen are charming animations of the Stahlbaum family, gathered together on Christmas Eve alongside the wizard-toymaker Drosselmeyer, who gives the children magical toys. To Clara he presents a red-lacquered nutcracker.
The animated characters move in time to the music and engage with Dariescu by waving greetings to her as they enter. As night falls, Clara curls up to sleep by her nutcracker, where she dreams of being transported to a magical realm. The animation is replaced by ballerina Desiree Ballantyne and, as the Christmas tree grows to great heights, the Nutcracker comes to life. Clara finds herself in the middle of a fight between the Rat King and the Nutcracker.
Ballantyne interacts wonderfully with the animation, making it seem like she’s climbing the tall Christmas tree, fighting rats and dancing with the Nutcracker.
Moving on to the Land of Sweets, Clara dances along in delight and meets new characters along the way, such as an animated Sugar Plum Fairy, a pair of comical Chinese twins and silk-clad dancers from mysterious east.
Clara learns new tricks from her friends, leading to group dances, as well as a lovely duet between Clara and the Nutcracker, now transformed into a prince.
Tchaikovsky’s score accompanies the entire performance, including favorites such as “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Arabian Dance,” “Chinese Dance,” “Pax de Deux” and the “Flower Waltz,” as Clara explores the various realms of the kingdom. Some the classic tunes have been rearranged but were still true enough to the original that the audience could hum happily along.
“The Nutcracker” has been adapted into movies and books and “The Nutcracker and I” does not tell the exact story of the original. Rather it merges the most iconic scenes together and takes viewers back to their childhood, when some might have first encountered Tchaikovsky’s music. There is no defeating the Rat King, for example, or Clara being crowned queen for her liberation of the Nutcracker from his wooden form. Instead, Dariescu’s Clara takes on a more empty role - ready to be filled by any audience member remembering, or experiencing for the first time, the delight of the ballet’s charm, color, magic and child-like excitement.
Ballantyne spends much of the performance staring in amazement at the animated figures and less time actually dancing, so those coming to “The Nutcracker and I” expecting a ballet performance may feel short-changed.
The show’s animated characters are the main attraction, which combined with the dancer’s interplay and Dariescu’s expert piano skills, makes the whole performance captivating.
It’s a refreshing, contemporary take on conventional ballet that pays homage to the original. Multidisciplinary shows like this could well give a younger generation the chance to fall in love with ballet.
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