A Nutcracker to Cherish
We are lucky that The Nutcracker isn't an annual cash cow in Singapore like it is in North America. When a good production hits town, we are more likely to enjoy it on its own terms. Surprisingly, Singapore Dance Theatre's latest version of this holiday chestnut, which included pre-show amusements like, um, live story-telling, counts as one such instance.
I say "surprisingly" because for the 22-strong SDT, full-evening ballets - particularly The Nutcracker - are especially tough to mount. Besides the expense and the coordination with live musicians, students, parents and other extras are needed to fill out the cast, and even then, many company dancers still have to take on multiple roles. That the SDT survived the opening night without any major mishaps is an achievement in itself.
The Nutcracker has some sentimental value to the SDT. In 1992, it was first staged for the company by co-founder Anthony Then, who led the troupe with Goh Soo Khim until his death in 1995; it was also the first evening-length work to enter the repertoire. Then's staging has since been performed with some regularity, most recently in 2001.
Having never seen Then's Nutcracker, I cannot tell the extent
to which resident choreographer Jeffrey Tan's overhaul has deviated
from his mentor's vision. But I think Then would have liked Tan's rendition,
which retains the revelry and fantasy that makes this 19th-century ballet
still attractive today. And it helps that Tchaikovsky's immortal score
was capably rendered by the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra under maestro
Lim Yau, plus the choirs of Swiss Cottage and Westwood Secondary Schools.
For the first act, he's moved the action outdoors to a village square, where folks are preparing to celebrate Christmas and where we meet our prepubescent heroine Clara. Thirty-something Cheah Mei Sing - she of Arts Central's Go Tutu Go! - is petite enough to carry off playing a child, but more importantly, she's able to inject more classical dancing into a role not known for its artistic range. As an adult pretending to be a kid, Cheah never seemed cloying or annoying, and that must have been hard to pull off; she should be getting meatier roles.
The libretto doesn't state the connection that Drosselmeyer (SDT ballet master Paul de Masson) has with the villagers; he's usually an uncle or godfather figure. But as everyone bows reverently to him, he probably commands a good deal of respect in the community. More like a grandpa, but no slouch when teasing naughty boys, his affection for Clara is clear and he gives her a nutcracker doll. (But when she kisses him in return for his kind generosity, pardon me if I found it somewhat gross that he goes a little weak-kneed.)
At night, Clara enters the village square to retrieve her forgotten nutcracker doll, only to be caught in the war between the rats - led by a Mouse King dressed like a Roman centurion - and the full-grown Nutcracker with his toy soldiers. After gingerly hurling a shoe at the rats' leader, Clara makes him stay down by setting off the soldiers' toy cannon. We learn towards the end that this scene and most of Act Two are part of Clara's dream, a common device in most Nutcrackers to explain these events.
The second act has most of the evening's best dancing, and Tan has tweaked the context in which the famous divertissements occur. Here, Clara and her now-handsome Nutcracker Prince (Robert Mills), while flying to the Kingdom of Sweets on a hot-air balloon, journey through Spain, France, Arabia, Russia, China, and Holland - geographic settings for the Spanish dance, Dance of the Mirlitons, Arabian dance, Russian dance, Chinese dance, and Waltz of the Flowers, respectively. (These dances are traditionally performed in the Kingdom of Sweets as court entertainment for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her guests.)
Most of these travel diversions look as they should, but Tan has reserved his most radical changes for the Chinese dance, which was so charming that I wished it were longer. In a nod to Chinese opera, eight women in magenta wear one sleeve long and flowing, which they artfully flick and gather to the music's bouncy tempo. Their mincing entrance, though, felt a little too mannered, even for Chinese folk dancers.
Overall, this Nutcracker is a winner, despite the occasional wobble and some fudged turns; Tan has shown himself amply capable of fulfilling his ideas onstage and organising personnel in visually interesting ways. He should be pleased with his first full-evening venture.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /