Choreographer Terence Kohler promises an innovative take on The Nutcracker
In taking on The Nutcracker, choreographer Terence Kohler had to answer his own question: how to keep its uplifting spirit while updating the Christmas classic, he tells Mabel Sieh
It's like watching a flower blossoming, with its petals slowly unfolding, as Australian choreographer Terence Kohler whispers his free-flow creative ideas to his team of dancers at a dance studio inside the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
He instructs the male dancers to lift up their female partners and let them sway from side to side slowly, like branches in the wind. Then the 28-year-old observes, quietly: "It's always interesting to see how the dancers take the idea and develop it into something of their own."
The Sydney-born and Munich-based Kohler, who is rehearsing with the Hong Kong Ballet one of the epic scenes in The Nutcracker - The Waltz of the Flowers, adds: "I was thinking about the movements of this scene while standing outside in the Kowloon Park yesterday."
Kohler is in Hong Kong with a new version of the two-act ballet with the score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. There have been many versions of the ballet since it premiered in 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia. But the basic storyline tells of a little girl, Clara, who is given a wooden nutcracker by her godfather, Drosselmeyer, on Christmas Eve and her magical journey that follows.
Kohler has won a swag of awards including the 2007 German Dance Prize "Future" Award for choreography and a nomination as the most promising choreographer in Europe's leading dance magazine, Ballettanz. His work has been performed far and wide - by the Bavarian State Ballet to the National Ballet of China and, more recently, the Finnish National Ballet and the West Australian Ballet.
So it is no surprise that he was approached by Madeleine Onne, artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet, back in 2009. "It's not easy to find young choreographers who are willing to create a classic story ballet. Terence is an extraordinary choreographer with a unique style that makes the dancers look their best," says Onne.
"It took me six months to say yes," Kohler says. "I kept thinking to myself: what can I bring to the show? How can I update a beloved Christmas tale without just 'modernising' it?"
He has found the answer by going back to the original material. "I spent every day listening to Tchaikovsky's score. I've also gone back to the original story: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann."
By reviewing the music score which dictates the emotions, Kohler says he found hope. "I started to see where I can do 'things'."
Hoffman's story offers him a new and realistic perspective. "His story shows the good and the evil. The battle scene [between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker] is dramatic and scary, showing real emotions of the characters. All these made me want to create an 'emotional realism' in my production," he says.
"No characters in ballet should exist without a reason. Everything has to make sense to the audience who are much more educated nowadays."
He has also decided to include both child characters, Clara and her brother Fritz, in the story and give them sensible roles.
"My story is about the journey of these two children who grow up overnight, by going through a battle and meeting some extraordinary, interesting people along the way. It's a catalyst for growth and one that tells the prophecy: one day our world will be restored by our children," he says.
Hong Kong Ballet dancer Shen Jie, who plays the role of Fritz, is amazed by Kohler's creative ideas. "I'm drawn to Terence's new storyline and choreography. The audience will be mesmerised by the beautiful dancing and stunning sets. I can't wait to bring it to life on stage," says the 24-year-old.
Soloist Li Ming shares his excitement. "Playing the role of Clara, I am transported back to my childhood. I have so much fun playing and interacting with other characters," says the 26-year-old. "His production is infused with a great deal of creativity. It will offer the audience a completely refreshing perspective."
Kohler feels lucky to work with a group of talented dancers with a wide range of techniques, which gives him more room for fusing new styles. "I can add more flavours into the cultural dances, making the Italians more lively, the French more beautiful and arrogant, and the Egyptian darker and more sultry," he says.
"And you may just see some breakdancing movements somewhere," he adds.
One of the focal points of every Nutcracker production is the magical set, which also proved a challenge. Without giving away too much detail, Kohler will only reveal that "it's all about shifting perspectives" and that "the three-dimensional sets are inspired by 'pop-up' story books, and the exaggerated costumes are taken from the post-Victorian period".
To achieve his dream ideas of sets and costumes, he works closely with Spanish set and costume designer Jordi Roig, who has worked with many famous choreographers and productions including Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake, Vladimir Malakhov's Cinderella and Heinz Spoerli's Coppelia and Don Quixote.
"I let myself dwell on Terence's concept and ideas of this fantastic fairy-tale world, and the kind of magical atmosphere he wants to create for the audience. I also looked at documents from the period which helped bring the ideas to life," says Roig.
With less than two weeks to the performances, all eyes are on this new interpretation of a Christmas tradition.
"This new production will be a fresh experience for both the audience and our performers," says Judith Yan, who will lead the Hong Kong Sinfonietta in playing the score live. "Terence's new choreography will definitely lead us to some new musical interpretations," she says.
Kohler has one simple goal in mind. "I hope people who come to see it will be transported to another space where their imagination will be sparked," he says.
"Through the journey in that space, they'll see The Nutcracker is not just about a dream but a belief that our world is a magical and beautiful place."
The Nutcracker , Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Fri-Dec 16, Dec 20-21, Dec 22-24, 7.30pm; Dec 15-16, Dec 22-23, Dec 25-26 also 2.30pm, HK$120-HK$1,000 Urbtix. For more details, go to hkballet.com/nutcracker2012
Notable Nutcracker productions
1892 The show first is performed by the Kirov Ballet in St Petersburg and choreographed by Marius Petipa, but panned by critics
1944 San Francisco Ballet stages the first complete version under artistic director Willam Christensen
1954 New York City Ballet performs George Balanchine's interpretation , regarded by many as the definitive American version
1967 Royal Swedish Ballet stages Rudolf Nureyev's version at the Royal Opera House in London
1976 Mikhail Baryshnikov premieres a new version for the American Ballet Theatre with himself in the lead role
1984 and 1990 Peter Wright choreographs a production for the Royal Ballet, then for the Birmingham Royal Ballet
1997-2001 Stephen Jefferies, former artistic director of HK Ballet, stages his version in Hong Kong