The Nutcracker and I by Alexandra Dariescu at Barbican’s Milton Court: ‘a refreshing multi-media adaption’

For some The Nutcracker has become as stale a winterval tradition as Boxing Day’s leftover Christmas pud. Not for Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu. Combining 50 minutes of solo piano with animation synced live to the movements of a ballerina, The Nutcracker and I by Alexandra Dariescu gives Tchaikovsky’s ballet a fresh, digital update.

The story follows the basic plot of the original. As Dariescu launches into the first of 15 arrangements, a flurry of snow is projected onto a large gauze screen covering the entire stage: it’s Christmas Eve and our young protagonist Clara (played by ballerina Désirée Ballantyne) is fascinated by a nutcracker carved in the form of a toy soldier. Clara falls asleep and vividly dreams of accompanying the nutcracker on various magical ventures: battling the Mouse King, whizzing through the Land of Sweets, encountering the Sugar Plum Fairy. These scenes are fantastically rendered through hand-drawn animation from visuals company Yeast Culture. As well as the calorific kaleidoscope conjured in the Land of Sweets, particularly impressive is the duet between Clara and her digital nutcracker-prince whose pirouettes and sautés achieve a realistic grace.

While the multimedia concept is inventive, aspects can be refined. Where you sit affects how coordinated the dance sequences appear (avoid being at an angle too near the front). As the title suggests, The Nutcracker and I is in many ways autobiographical. Like the nine-year-old Dariescu, Clara dreams of becoming a concert pianist and subsequently journeys through different cultures (Dariescu moved from Romania to Yorkshire just after she turned 17). Yet these personal resonances aren’t felt strongly enough to make this take on The Nutcracker as touching and original as it could be.

What does resonate deeply is Dariescu’s playing; both elegant and robust, Dariescu twinkles over arpeggios with the delicacy of falling snow before storming across the keyboard – her fingers a blizzard of motion – stamping vigorously on pedals and sending vast chords crashing. To communicate highly virtuosic arrangements with such passion is rare and reflects Dariescu’s principal ambition to inspire audiences, particularly the younger members. Her passion was infectious. As the animation dissolved into a wash of pixel dust at the finale, a little girl in the audience practised her piano moves on the seat in front of her. She won’t be the only one.

Sam Taylor is an arts journalist who recently graduated with an English degree from UCL. He writes film and music reviews for the Financial Times, conducts interviews for The Cusp and edits London Student’s Review section. He has also been published by Jazzwise and The Independent and plays lead guitar in alt-rock band Where’s John?

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