[Reviewed on 7 December, 2016. This article was originally written for and published on the Straits Times (print and web edition).]
The Nutcracker has been considered one of ballet’s most beloved yet most controversial pieces. Russian audiences in the 1800s might have found it acceptable, but in a globalised, culturally aware age, its Eurocentric fetishisation of Eastern cultures has raised eyebrows.
Some artistic directors have tried to argue that the ballet’s play on stereotypes is “traditional”, not “racist”.
But in Singapore Dance Theatre’s (SDT) version, artistic director Janek Schergen has stripped it of some of its whiteness by setting Act One of the ballet in Shanghai – a reasonable transposition, given the largely East Asian company.
Much of that act was an overlong party scene, in which the company mingled and tittered as party guests with precious little real action or dancing – though Lisha Chin had fun hamming it up as Clara’s mother, a preening, doting socialite with a perpetual tension headache.
The story begins with a nutcracker toy gifted to Clara (a bemused Ashley Chong), but in this staging it neither broke nor was transformed into a prince.
Instead, magician Drosselmeyer (Mohamed Noor Sarman) had a hand in conjuring up a rather adorable but apparently evil rat army, which seemed an odd thing for a protagonist to do. It all became a bit awkward when a fully grown Etienne Ferrere as Kristian, the Nutcracker Prince substitute, trained a gun on and shot at the bunch of cute little girls hopping around in furry rat costumes.
With the rat army disposed of and any semblance of plot blown out of the way, the ballet kicked into its series of divertissements that made up one big classical dance party.
The Nutcracker is a show meant to delight children and entertain adults, but the dancing here, while serviceable, was rather sterile and unexciting, and the choreography blandly unevocative.
The Waltz Of The Snowflakes, which should conjure the feeling of flurrying snow, did not accomplish this until the stage was showered with white confetti towards the end.
Compared with the fluttering fingertips in Peter Wright’s version for the Royal Ballet or the whirling, white pom-pom bedecked corps of the Mariinsky, it was lacking.
This staging of the Nutcracker was sparse, lacking tricks, opulent sets or oversized props to amuse and distract. Perhaps it was opening night jitters, but the company did not seem in a festive mood, looking stressed and sloppy, rather than sprightly.
For a holiday ballet, smiles were few and far between. Company dancers Nanase Tanaka and Akira Nakahama were notable exceptions, as well as SDT’s three female principles. Chihiro Uchida as the Snow Queen and Rosa Park as the Sugar Plum Fairy were dependable in their effervescent, light-hearted roles. As Dewdrop, Li Jie (lovely, though not entirely at ease with the pre-recorded music during her variation) led the female corps in a dance towards the end of the Waltz Of The Flowers, a “let us get in formation” moment that hinted at some of the grandiosity a Nutcracker production should have.
Park, in her last series of performances for the SDT, was the second act’s star as the scene moved from Shanghai to the Land of Sweets in Russia, the beating heart of ballet. She was a joyous Sugar Plum Fairy, delicate in nature and confident in her turns and leaps, although unequally yoked to her partner Ferrere, who seemed a double tour away from an ankle injury.
As for the culturally dubious portions of the Nutcracker, Schergen had the presence of mind not to have his dancers prance around with frozen smiles, feet in parallel and forefingers pointed in some garish Occidental parody of “the exotic Oriental” in the traditional Chinese Tea Dance. Instead, he transformed it into a graceful piece, with dancers waving cloth ribbons in homage to Chinese dance.
The audience was also spared the brown-facing of dancers in the Arabian portion, but still subjected to historically inaccurate costumes of bare-midriff women and men in cropped, open vests. The choreography invoked the “sensual Arab” trope and was awkward in sex appeal and execution.
It could be worse, but it could also be so much better.