Australians may consider themselves to be good at physical theatre, but the 26-strong Imperial Ice Stars company from Russia excel at performing on ice skates, a theatrical field where Australians are unlikely to ever achieve prominence (Steve Bradbury notwithstanding).
Producers Lunchbox Theatrical Productions have scheduled an Australasian tour to coincide with our colder months: a cunning move, as a European Christmas tale seems somehow more appropriate in a southern winter. It’s cold outside, and it feels right to enter an enchanted winter wonderland.
In this adaptation of The Nutcracker ballet, The Imperial Ice Stars, made up of former ice-skating athletes, display extraordinary physical grace and expertise. It’s no surprise that Disney moved into the world of theatrical ice dancing some 30 years after it became an accepted form of iceskating competition: in no other theatrical form can humans so closely resemble the art of animation.
The opulent costumes and sets (costumes by Russian designer Elena Predvodeteleva, sets by Australian designer Eamon D’Arcy), plus the sheer scale of physical skill on display, which encompasses conjuring tricks, gymnastics and aerial artistry, is likely to win over even the most jaded and cynical theatregoers, ultimately causing them to gasp and cheer.
Along with the lead characters, Act 1 introduces some of the special effects: mysterious guest Herr Drosselmeyer flies down from the top of the proscenium fluttering his silk cape. Drosselmeyer bears the key present of the Nutcracker doll, played by gymnast Marina Davydova – the only member of the company not on skates. Heroine Marie’s naughty brother and sister are reminiscent of Lenin’s Young Pioneers with their red neckerchiefs; a puzzling reference in this pre-revolutionary setting.
The first act’s crowded Christmas party scene is somewhat fussy and busy. The following fight scene, between the Mouse King’s army and the toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker in an adult incarnation, is also busy, if exciting. But by the time the first act ends, with leads Marie and her Nutcracker Prince in a swooping duet (performed by Anastasia Ignatyeva and Bogdan Berezenko on opening night), our emotions are engaged. The performances are more affecting when they resemble ballet more closely, and the Tchaikovsky soundtrack swells.
Act II is more satisfying in this sense, in that it gives more opportunities for two to four performers on the full stage to glide and strut their stuff on ice. Purists may be dismayed when Marie takes over the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, but “the grand celebration of dancing” which follows piles on a spectacle: the Spanish dancers are augmented with fire-twirling, and later surpassed by the “Arabian couple” who soar over the scene on ropes. Their aerial artistry is magnified by the risk posed by gymnastics mixed with sharp skates!
With only a rare tumble, the ice dancing standard is very high, showing off jumps, lifts and spins, and moves so new and complex they don’t have a name yet, according to artistic director Tony Mercer. His interpretation satisfyingly wraps the story up, returning Marie to her family home and reuniting her with the Nutcracker Prince, albeit in the guise of the son of a family friend. We are drawn into this entertainment as surely as the centripetal forces keep the figures spinning, even when they are entwined four-deep. The Nutcracker on Ice is as pretty as a chocolate box, and just as irresistible.