Alexandra Dariescu embraces the Sugar Plum Fair

‘The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu’: ballet mixed with animation

Image credit: Yeast Culture

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ is a festive classic: the fantasy adventure of a young girl, Clara, on Christmas Eve as her favourite toy, a nutcracker, turns into a handsome prince. But this old tale is about to get a new twist.

Coupling the subject matter with the time of year has made ‘The Nutcracker’ a seasonal family favourite, and it is an introduction to ballet for many children. However, as an art form ballet – and, indeed, classical music – has the image among young people of being inaccessible, something that pianist Alexandra Dariescu hopes to rectify with ‘The ‘Nutcracker & I’, a live performance with animations.

“I feel it is my responsibility as a young artist to try to get as many young people into the concert hall as possible,” says Dariescu. “Especially the younger generation always feel that classical music is elitist and out of touch with the real world. I feel it is accessible, but we just need a new and innovative format. I wanted to bring classical music in a different perspective.”

Tchaikovsky’s music has been adapted so that an orchestra is replaced by a single piano, and the performance is condensed down to 50 minutes. Not only is there a single musician, there is also a single ballerina who dances the part of Clara. All other parts are played by animations, which were created by a company called Yeast Culture, whose creative director is Nick Hillel.

“We used rotoscope [the technique of tracing round film images to create animations] and real dancers working with the ballerina who will be on stage,” says Hillel. “We hand-draw every frame to give us the aesthetic we are looking for – a non-digital, non-computerised effect.” The animations are projected onto a gauze screen at the front of the stage which is virtually invisible if no lights are shining on it.

To have these animations apparently connecting and contacting with the ballerina and with Dariescu and her piano has taken some very careful choreography combined with animation expertise. Hillel explains: “You have to play with perspective and you have to make the stage look like there is depth to it when the image is flat. The ballerina can use the depth and the width of the stage whereas my projected dancer can obviously only go on a flat screen. So when the ballerina goes back – upstage – we need to know how to trick the eye so the animated character also appears to be going that way.”

For the actual performance the key is getting the timing right between piano, ballerina and projection. Hillel says: “It’s a jigsaw puzzle: if you make one mistake along the way the whole thing falls down.”

‘The Nutcracker & I’ will be performed at the Barbican, London, on 19 December 2017, before going on tour to Russia.

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