Wednesday 20 December 2017

The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu

Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
Tchaikovsky, Alexandra Dariescu The Nutcracker and I; Alexandra Dariescu, Amy Drew, Nick Hillel, Adam Smith, Jenna Lee; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 19 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Piano recital, animation and live dance innovatively combined into a magical evening

Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
A little girl walks onto the stage, and starts to play the piano, snow begins to fall and the little girl transforms into a woman, playing the prelude to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. As the music progresses the story starts to play out, the little girl, the nutcracker, a nasty cousin, the prince. And all the while, it is the piano which is the source of the magic, as the kingdom of the sweets and its denizens emerge from it, as the music continues.

Pianist Alexandra Dariescu's The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu takes a number of slightly unlikely ingredients and melds them into a magic whole. There is Dariescu's own pianism, playing a sequence of piano music from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker in arrangements by Stepan Esipov, Tchaikovsky himself, Mikhail Pletnev, and Percy Grainger, plus three new arrangements specially commissioned from Gavin Sutherland. There is animation from Nick Hillel (director), Adam Smith (art director and animation director) and Yeast Culture, which magically creates the story, and there is the live ballerina (we saw Amy Drew), with choreography by Jenna Lee, who represents the little girl transformed during her dream of the kingdom of sweets.

Premiered at the Milton Court Concert Hall on Tuesday 19 December 2017 as part of Guildhall School of Music and Drama's alumni recitals, the event is product of Dariescu's participation in the school's innovative creative entrepreneurship programme. Dariescu has developed the idea and produced the show, as well as playing the piano, collaborating with director Nick Hillel, Yeast Culture, Jenna Lee and with the live dancer.

Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
The narrative is quite traditional, except for the fact that the first act is modernised and shortened, no Drosselmeyer, but there is the familiar battle between the Nutcracker and Mouse King. Once we get to the kingdom of sweets there are the familiar Russians with their trepak (except that their beards make them look more like Hoxton hipsters), the Chinese with their dance, and the sinuous Arab dance, and of course the Sugar Plum fairy, and of course guiding our heroine through is the prince.

There is a great deal to admire technically about the evening, Dariescu's choice of arrangements favours ones made as piano showpieces rather than simply functional material so they are technically challenging; the integration of music and animation is well done and never clunky, the animated characters (which are based on real dancers) do seem to be dancing to the music; the co-ordination between the live performers and the animated ones is impressive.

But none of this matters, you take it for granted, such is the magic of the story telling and the sheer visual delight of Yeast Culture's designs. The show lasts an hour and whilst being an ideal introduction to the music and the drama for children, it represents a magical evening for adults too (at least for D. and I, and those we talked to afterwards). The concept is so brilliant and so portable (Dariescu will be taking it on tour to Stavanger and China and you feel sure that the show will be back in London soon), that you wonder why no-one has done this before.

Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
It should be pointed out that Yeast Culture have history in this area, they were responsible for the innovative animations which accompanied Matthew Barley's performances of Britten's Third Cello suite in 2013 (see my review).

There were a couple of niggles which popped up afterwards. Whilst the integration of live dance and animation is superbly done, we did wonder whether the live ballerina was needed at all, but that is the adult talking and I suspect children will find the combination of live and animated magical and certainly the way the cartoon girl falls asleep and then turns into a real ballerina is brilliant. More importantly, the dance element uses the familiar choreography, and Petipa's dance steps for Tchaikovsky make great use of the lift, particularly in the serious moments. Of course, an animated prince cannot lift a real ballerina, and for the grand pas de deux, the show resorted to sending the pair off into the distance so that we saw a pair of animated characters, the one lifting the other. A small point, but a telling one for dance enthusiasts.

I would like to see other versions of the story, it would be interesting to produce a version for adults which explored the more Freudian aspects of the story!

Alexandra Dariescu provides more than just a musical back-drop to the show. She plays the various arrangements dazzlingly and vivaciously, as well as melding the different arrangers into a whole. As anyone who has seen her playing live will testify, she has a strong and charming stage persona and this shines through the whole evening.
Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)
Alexandra Dariescu - The Nutcracker and I (Photo Mark Allen)

The Nutcracker and I
Alexandra Dariescu - performer & producer
Nick Hillel - director
Adam smith - art director & animation director
Jenna Lee - choreography (live and animation)
Amy Drew - ballerina
Sander Loonen - technical producer
Yeast Culture - video design
Dante Anthony Baylor - costumes
Luke Cinque-White, Brittanie Dillon, Harry Alexander, Matthew Morrell - animated characters

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