What: Royal New Zealand Ballet - The Nutcracker
Where & when: Civic Theatre, Thursday, December 6-Sunday, December 9; Bruce Mason Centre, Friday, December 14-Saturday, December 15
I didn't count how many flights of steps it was but it felt like a lot.
We were in the gods and it was hot and steep and there was only one way up, the stairs. The Royal New Zealand Ballet's temporary home, the Wellington Opera House - a grand 100-year-old dame (minus lifts) - was filled to overflowing with excited young people for The Nutcracker matinee performance.
In a world of digital entertainment, taking the kids to the ballet is a sensory indulgence. The live experience of sitting in the theatre, the orchestra nestled in the pit, the conductor, a choir, dancers, lighting, props and stage settings all synchronised to harmonious perfection.
The Nutcracker ballet beautifully captures the spirit of children and Christmas. Choreographed by Val Caniparoli, it keeps to the traditional story with old-world charm, theatrical magic and make believe all set to Tchaikovsky's score of instantly recognisable music. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is probably the most famous melody, often played in Christmas commercials, but at its most enchanting when brought to life by the fairy herself.
As the children and parents hustled and bustled into their seats, eventually the chattering quietened, the lights faded out and the curtain went up.
The opening scene is the master toymaker and magician Herr Drosselmeier in his workshop, finishing his prized toy, a nutcracker in the shape of a wooden toy soldier. The toys on the shelf behind him are moving but whenever he turns to look they stop. This is a clue we're on a journey into a land of magic where toys are real and have a life of their own.
The ballet is performed in two acts. In the first, the Stahlbaum family are hosting a party on Christmas Eve with all the children receiving gifts from under the tree. Drosselmeier arrives with toys for his godchildren, a mouse for Fritz and the Nutcracker for Marie.
A party ensues with dances from the children, naughtiness from Fritz and a delightful geriatric pas de deux from the grandparents. The optical illusions and seamless scene changes are so good, we're held spellbound.
Marie sneaks down to the Christmas tree, after everyone has gone, to check on her Nutcracker doll. She falls asleep on the sofa and enters a dream where the Nutcracker turns into a prince and takes her on a magical journey.
First, he must battle the Mouse King and his errant army of mice before they travel through a snow forest and into the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy at the Marzipan Castle. When the Mouse King appears, a small girl behind me spontaneously shouted, "There's the Mouse King!"
After his defeat, a snow storm begins, filling the stage with falling snow, while Marie and her Nutcracker prince dance a dreamy pas de deux, along with a stunning corps de ballet of snowflakes. The commentary continued behind me. "Who are they?" she asked when the snowflakes appear. "Maybe they're her neighbours?" replied her young companion.
In the second act, the Sugar Plum Fairy makes an entrance with her six gorgeous little green fairies carrying lanterns. A medley of dances at the Marzipan Castle begins. Spanish Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, the Lion, French Pastillles, Russian Cavier, Bon Bons, Dew Drop and the New Zealand twist of Pōhutukawa Flowers all deliver exceptional performances.
The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier are the mechanical dolls from Act 1 come to life. Their grand pas de deux is the climax of the show, with stunningly executed lifts receiving multiple rounds of applause, the Cavalier's grand jetes and the Sugar Plum Fairy's fouettes follow, reaping more appreciation from the audience.
Afterwards we had a debrief over a happy meal and medium fries. It was brief. "Who was your favourite?" I asked Ailsa, my 7-year-old god-daughter. "The Sugar Plum Fairy, "she replied.
I have to agree, such a uniquely New Zealand addition and so perfectly fitting to a Christmas story, it's hard to believe The Nutcracker ever existed without them.
Why The Nutcracker is special: two Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers share their stories
Katherine Minor (dances the lead role of Marie): "The Nutcracker is special to me because it was the first production I ever danced, when I was 10 years old. I couldn't let go of the feeling I had of being on stage and it is probably what propelled my dream of becoming a dancer.
I was involved as a 'party child'. I loved wearing my costume (a green dress) and having to put curls in my hair. I danced as a Bon Bon in Act 2, where we came out from under the skirt of Mother Ginger. I remember we used to get nervous and giggly before coming out of the big skirt to dance. Then the next year I was cast as Marie, and that felt truly magical.
Besides the moments I remember of being on stage, I remember developing a special bond with the other kids in the production. We often played games, made time capsules to hide or practised our steps over and over again. It was a period of time that seemed more special than Christmas itself. The music still reminds me of that special feeling I used to get when first performing this ballet. It is a particularly special way to share the holiday mood with other dancers as well as the audiences."
Sara Garbowski (dances key roles including Dew Drop Fairy and Sugar Plum Fairy): "
is such a tradition and brings back so many childhood memories of being in the theatre. It was the first professional ballet I was involved with as a child and I remember being thrilled to be on stage next to the professional dancers. It was truly inspiring.
My parents took me to see The Nutcracker when I was young. I saw all the kids involved in the production and I wanted to do it as well so my mom took me to the school that provided the children for the production. Specifically, I wanted to be one of the two little lambs that appeared in the 2nd Act. My first year in The Nutcracker, I got the part!
The Nutcracker is about a young girls' dream on Christmas Eve. I think we all still have bits of that child in us that likes to dream no matter how old we are, especially during Christmas."