Nutcracker with an icy twist

13 Jun 12 - Canberra Times - Ron Cerabona

Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker is a traditional Christmas production in many parts of the northern hemisphere, so perhaps it's appropriate the Imperial Ice Stars have brought it to Australia for the first time during a notably cold winter.

Since the company is Russian and it had previously brought over two other Tchaikovsky ice-dance adaptations - Swan Lake on Ice (2010) and Sleeping Beauty on Ice (2004) as well as Cinderella on Ice (2008) - to Australia, it was probably inevitable that The Nutcracker on Ice would follow.

The show premiered in South Africa in January, where it toured for 11 weeks, before coming to Australia and New Zealand.

The story is set in St Petersburg in the late 19th century. On Christmas Eve, young Marie and her family open their presents and later that night, she feels compelled to check on the Nutcracker doll which had been presented to her by the mysterious magician Herr Drosselmeyer. And then something magical happens.

The show's artistic director and choreographer, Tony Mercer, British-born but long resident in Russia, says as with previous shows by the Imperial Ice Stars, in translating the work to a new form he's not a slavish follower either the story or the music of the traditional ballets. However, devotees of the originals should not be unduly alarmed.

''My Swan Lake was another story, the story Tchaikovsky planned to tell you and it's the same with Nutcracker … it's also the version Tchaikovsky intended you to see, with a slightly different ending. A lot of ballet companies now do what Tchaikovsky planned: I do the same.''

He says he wanted to keep the feeling of the show simple and easy to identify with since it is ''a fantasy story, a young girl's dream.

''I wanted to make you feel as if it might be able to happen.''

One of the notable elements of this show, he says, is its humour, with energetic, bickering children and whimsical characters such as a magician performing tricks and an enchanted nutcracker.

It's performed to Tchaikovsky's score, specially arranged and recorded by Tim A. Duncan, on sumptuous sets created by Australian set designer Eamon D'Arcy and features magic effects created by Spanish magician Jorge Blass.

D'Arcy also designed the sets for Mercer's ice productions of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty productions. For this one there are eight scene changes taking into account shifts in perspective - for a large part of the show, the characters are the size of the mice who play a very important part - as well as location.

D'Arcy says that although from the designer's point of view it's like creating sets for a romantic ballet, he is always mindful of the skaters' requirements - ''half ballet, half athleticism. They need a certain amount of room to get up to speed … so they need to have space to move.''

D'Arcy emigrated to Australia from Ireland with his family and studied set design at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. His career has include working on the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and being senior production designer of the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony as well as creating the LED screens that formed the sets of the recent Australian production of the musical Hairspray and the TV revival of Young Talent Time.

With both him and Mercer having busy international schedules they do a lot of their consulting via technology to finalise the designs. D'Arcy is based in Melbourne and a lot of the final construction is done there.

''We make it happen,'' he says.

As well as showcasing seasoned performers from previous productions, The Nutcracker on Ice will feature some new talents who have been working their way up.

''And we've added some stunning aerial work,'' Mercer says.

That aerial work - in the Arabian Dance - is the contribution of South African Fiona Kirk, the first non-Russian/ex-Soviet Union member of the Imperial Ice Stars, and her Ukrainian husband Vova Khodakaviskyy.

They met in 2000 after pursuing solo careers and developed the aerial act in 2006 because it was hard for them to find jobs that needed both a male and female ice dancer.

Khodakaviskyy says, ''We evolved our own method.''

Their aerial work been incorporated into this show and other Imperial Ice Stars productions since they joined the company last year.

More familiar to Australian fans will be two of the company's founding members, Andrei Penkin and his partner Elena Pyatash, who have been with the Imperial Ice Stars since it began in 2004.

They alternate with two other performers in the roles of Marie's siblings who get transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy and her page. Penkin, 34, who began ice skating at the age of three, says that compared to earlier Imperial Ice Stars shows, this one is ''more powerful, more dramatic and we've tried to create more funny moments on stage''.

As the ''siblings'' they indulge in plenty of moments of horseplay, although offstage Penkin is serious, even intense, and is quick to correct an inadvertent reference to what they do as ballet - ''it's ice dance'' - and when asked what he plans to do when his ice skating career is over shrugs fatalistically that ''It could end tomorrow.''

Perhaps some of this solemnity comes from the dedication required, with hours of rehearsal every day to perfect movements and routines.

''But you enjoy yourself … and it's real enjoyment,'' he says.

They have a 12-year-old son who is also an ice skater.

When asked if the boy will join the Imperial Ice Stars, Penkin says, ''Perhaps later.''

But for now there's plenty to keep him and the other members of the company occupied. They have a show to put on, as they do for up to 10 months of every year, and audiences to thrill, dazzle and beguile with their skills and their art.

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