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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

'The Nutcracker and I' at Dubai Opera: a classic tale for the digital age

Alexandra Dariescu’s ‘The Nutcracker and I’ is a repurposing of the classic that might make purists balk, but just how revelatory is her approach?

Alexandra ­Dariescu’s ‘The Nutcracker and I’ is a multimedia take on the ballet. Courtesy Nigel Norrington
Alexandra ­Dariescu’s ‘The Nutcracker and I’ is a multimedia take on the ballet. Courtesy Nigel Norrington

Tonight, pianist Alexandra ­Dariescu will present The Nutcracker and I, a highly personal, multimedia take on the titular ballet – accompanied by just a grand piano and a cast of one: a single ballerina, who performs hidden behind a gauze screen splattered by a synchronised series of animated dancers.

Tchaikovsky’s classic has long been a seasonal staple on stages around the world, and there will doubtless be a good few concertgoers relieved by a fresh twist on an obligatory annual outing to hear Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

But it’s equally probable there will be a smattering of traditionalists who balk at the young Romanian pianist’s use of careening cartoon dancers, in place of the dozens of tutu-clad flesh and blood ballerinas who might normally recreate George Balanchine’s classic choreography. We’re loftily promised this technological fusion will “leave the audience feeling as though they are in, and a part of, the Nutcracker story”.

Having originally premiered in London, at the Barbican’s Milton Court in December 2017, accusations of gimmickry should be considered carefully. With an extensive recorded repertoire and previously named as one of Forbes’ “30 under 30”, Dariescu is doubtless a serious talent who can navigate the 15 cherry-picked solo piano arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s work – plus three fresh arrangements by Gavin Sutherland.

But her decision to present The Nutcracker as an edited, hour-long multimedia spectacle on such a mainstream platform raises questions about authenticity – and highlights an increasing trend for modern, multidisciplinary reinterpretations of classic works, often blurring boundaries between music, stage and screen. But how revelatory is such an approach, really?

The composer is sacrosanct

In June, the world-renowned Hamburg Ballet premiered The Beethoven Project, long-term director and chief choreographer John Neumeier’s “emotional response” to the composer’s impending 250th birthday, built around fragments of Beethoven’s best-loved solo piano, string quartet and symphonic works, performed live alongside a symphony orchestra.

Such chopping, changing and repurposing again might challenge purists. But throughout history a choreographer’s role has always been to put movement to existing music – or, in ideal circumstances, work with a composer who will create the perfect score to accompany said movement. If the situation doesn’t allow for that encounter – why not repurpose the parts of the music that the ­choreographer sees fit?

Such matters rarely come up in any other genre – indeed entire art forms as opposing as hip-hop and musical theatre have drawn much of their base from repurposing and repackaging existing music.

Yet with classical music, the (often long-dead) composer’s final score is seemingly seen as sacrosanct – despite brave endeavours to go against tradition. Remix albums intended to introduce Bach and Mozart to younger audiences generally emerge hideously.

But there is a growing modern precedent. Composer Max Richter is continuing to tour the world to present Recomposed, his 2012 minimalist reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – a 300-year-old work already responded to in a tango version by Astor Piazzolla’s 1970 piece The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, and often performed intercut alongside Vivaldi’s work as “eight seasons”.

Composer Max Richter continues to tour the world with ‘Recomposed’, his 2012 minimalist reworking of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. Courtesy Redferns 
Composer Max Richter continues to tour the world with ‘Recomposed’, his 2012 minimalist reworking of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. Courtesy Redferns 

From stage to stage

Artists have always drawn from different disciplines – none more so than on the stage. Theatre impresarios have long looked to other mediums to furnish their stages with relatable stories – from the early days of operas based on novels to the Broadway musicals of today.

The classic ballet repertoire – Swan Lake, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty – is all based on pre-existing tales. And of course, drama has long relied on ever-wilder, braver re-imaginings of the canon, forever shifting the era, location and stylistic delivery of a slender core repertoire.

But responding to the non-narrative, quixotic otherness of music is not so common – and arguably not so natural. While many of today’s Broadway blockbusters are based on existing tunes, most cannot truly be called a reaction to the source material, but a reframing: Mamma Mia! or We Will Rock You may be built around the music of Abba and Queen respectively, but they breed spectacle over insight. You might say, the writers and directors are simply framing existing music with either fiction or biographical backstory.

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Read more:

Abu Dhabi Festival announces line-up of major performances for 2019

Two performances of 'Swan Lake' show how Dubai's cultural scene has found its feet

Swan Lake: the greatest of all fairy-tale ballets floats into Dubai

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Telling musical stories

Music’s peculiar, otherworldly, emotion-conjuring qualities, make it ideally suited to enriching other art forms; without music, there would be little dance in the way we know it, and nearly all cinema has utilised recorded music since technology allowed. But for live music to tell an existing narrative story, without the aid of the dialogue that comes with musicals, is a most particular challenge.

dIn the UAE, auditory interpretation of narrative works is increasingly common, in large part thanks to the pioneering role of The Arts Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi. Before embarking on its landmark first season in 2015, programmers gave their audience a taste of the adventures to come, with Theatre Mitu’s Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet, a site-specific, installation-like work, which, among other boundary-strafing “hyper-theatricalised” moves, included segments of a live rock concert.

Literature has been a repeated theme for musical exposition at the Saadiyat Island venue. Last year, singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon premiered a rock opera of Octavia E Butler’s dystopian science fiction Parable of the Sower. Earlier in 2017, on the same stage, Noche Flamenca presented an explosive retelling of Ancient Greek play Antigone, using the art form of flamenco – itself a thrilling mix of music and dance – to relive Sophocles’s tragic tale. It was a uniquely powerful statement, but perhaps not one as daring as it might have seemed a few decades ago, in a less connected world.

A Nutcracker for the internet age

If today’s multidisciplinary interpretation of The Nutcracker and I feels slightly commonplace, and as the barriers ­between disciplines are probed in evermore daring ways, it’s clearly the electronic age we have to thank. The advent of YouTube has no doubt helped feed fertile minds, offering not just ready access to decades of dramatic and dance performance – and unfathomable riches of music – but also allowing creatives to view cutting-edge performance troupes on the other side of the world.

The barriers ­between disciplines are being probed in ever more daring ways, ‘The Nutcracker and I’ demonstrates. Courtesy Nigel Norrington
The barriers ­between disciplines are being probed in ever more daring ways, ‘The Nutcracker and I’ demonstrates. Courtesy Nigel Norrington

The stage is no longer such an ephemeral medium. In the past, perhaps only a handful of masters might be documented, preserved on valuable tape which would often be hard to source outside specialist institutes. Yet in 2018, every minor performance has the potential to take on a life – and inspiration – of its own.

An underground theatre troupe in Beirut might perform an experimental work to three people in a subterranean venue, which would once have been forever lost to the ether. Now, if one of that trio present was a friend with a smartphone, the performance could be online in minutes – or streamed live, even – inspiring other creatives thousands of kilometres away, for years to come.

And for this, we should be thankful – whatever a dying breed of traditionalists might say. So, ponder on this when you take your seat tonight: Dariescu’s is a Nutcracker for the internet age.

The Nutcracker and I is on stage at Dubai Opera on December 12

Updated: December 11, 2018 06:56 PM

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