Time Out Singapore: ‘The Nutcracker’ Preview

No Christmas season is complete without the beloved ballet, The Nutcracker. This year, Singapore Dance Theatre will be putting on a version that is set in pre-WWI Shanghai. Gwen Pew speaks to artistic director Janek Schergen to find out more.

Janek Schergen. Image courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

Janek Schergen. Image courtesy of Singapore Dance Theatre.

26 Nov 2013: 

Tell us a bit more about this set-in-Shanghai production of The Nutcracker – how much of it will be Shanghai, and how different will it be from the original, western one?

It’s all set in Shanghai, that’s the whole idea of it, except Act II which is the Land of Sweets. But the basic idea is that the parts of reality are set in Shanghai. The reason for this is that our previous Nutcracker sort of turned Asian dancers into German dancers and called them German names and was set in Germany. To me, it was fine, but I thought more could be done with it. You could take it and make it more understandable why there were Asian dancers in a Western context. So what we did was to set it in Shanghai, and there was a mix of people who are Western and Asian and there’s this idea that there’s a western influence but there are still people who keep their traditions – like the Grandma who refuses to wear anything but her traditional dress, and she finds this whole thing going all around her just a little bit silly. We don’t do so much with the Christmas tree; it’s there as a novelty. The real purpose of the party is for the husband to give his wife a beautiful necklace in front of all of his friends. When Drosselmeyer appears, he appears with his nephew Kristian and his schoolmates and eventually Kristian becomes the Cavalier, together with the Sugarplum Fairy – Clara’s older sister.

You’ve previously staged this version in 2011 – why did you decide to do it again just two years after?

Because most companies do it every year. In almost every company around the world, Nutcracker is being done every year. We don’t have the tradition, but in most other places – it has nothing to do with climate or location, like the same thing with music like The Messiah, no one thinks ‘we can’t do it here, that’s not our tradition’, everyone loves The Nutcracker. It’s a Christmas time ballet, very much like A Christmas Carol or The Messiah. There are a few things that are definitely sort of Christmas-centric ideas or feelings. Also, The Nutcracker is one of the few ballets that you can take a child to. The child can enjoy it just as much as the adult can. The adult can enjoy it on a certain level, and the child can enjoy it on a different level. The duration of the ballet isn’t too long either and it’s got some of the most beautiful music ever composed.

What, if anything, are you doing differently this time round?

I’m doing a couple of things differently because I made a cut in the music two years ago that I never liked and I’m going to fix that this time. Any time you go back to a ballet for the second time, there’s always fixes. It doesn’t have to stay the same just because you did it that way before, so the changes are mostly visible to us inside but not necessarily visible to people outside. There are certain things that I’d still like to fix if I could, but I’m limited by time and budget.

Is the rehearsal process any easier this time? Why, or why not?

Worse. When you’re doing it for the very first time, you have no standard to measure up against, you’re making it up as you go along. So there’s nothing to adhere to. With a classical ballet, there are certain things definitely, but once you’re recreating it, you can upgrade it. It was very successful when we did it in 2011 so I have to keep it to that production and then upgrade it, so if there’s a change made, it has to make it better. If there’s something there that’s the same, it has to be of an even better quality this time. Every single time you do something, you want to do it to a higher level. Plus, since I just did a children’s audition and taught the scholars their places there are over 40 children in this ballet. That’s just one cast and there’s still a second cast. So also working with children is a big responsibility in the fact that you are giving some of them their very first theatrical experience at being on stage and that can either be a wonderful experience or a horrible experience. And for almost anybody in The Nutcracker, it should be a great experience. It’s really important that the experience will build the love of dance in these children and it’s a huge responsibility. I take it very seriously.

Which is your favourite scene from the show? Why?

The snow scene. Time stops when snow happens, to me. Time stops when they come out.

For people who are perhaps a bit intimidated by the ballet as something that is too high-brow for them, what advice would you give them? Why should they come to see The Nutcracker?

Nutcracker is the least high-brow of all of these ballets. Nutcracker and Coppelia actually, it doesn’t take much to figure out what is going on. Nutcracker marks time. Almost everybody who saw the show can remember the moment when they first saw it. If you ask somebody, they usually can tell you when they saw it. There’s almost always a time stamp. If you’re a ballet person, and you go to so many performances, you usually can’t remember when you saw a particular work. But for Nutcracker it’s different. I think it’s because it’s one of those things that is a shared experience. In most places in the world, Nutcracker is done every year. The New York City Ballet for instance has done it since 1954 and they do about 50 performances every single year. But what Nutcracker is used for that company is the introduction of first principals. The first time somebody does a principal role is The Nutcracker, because of its structure. You hardly put anybody on for the first time in Swan Lake, because it’s just too much. But for The Nutcracker, it’s a way of introducing someone to a principal role in a way that they can succeed, and they can do it well.

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