Modern take on The Nutcracker
Ivan Cavallari with dancers Alessandra D’Arbe, Melissa Boniface and Victoria Maughan. Picture: Robert Duncan/The West Australian

As it happens, the first ballet created for the WA Ballet by Ivan Cavallari also marks his final season with the company as artistic director before packing up and returning to Europe.

The Nutcracker, a wintry chestnut of the classical European repertoire, was given a Down Under summer reboot by Cavallari in 2008, the first full season he programmed after taking over from Simon Dow in 2007.

The conventional snowbound ballet is usually all dancing toys, warrior mice and sugar plum fairies, but Cavallari's update, co-created with renowned La Scala designer Edoardo Sanchi, featured computer viruses, a menacing schoolmistress and a heroine who finds love on the internet before another blazing hot Australian Christmas.

Instead of a tree, a washing machine takes centre stage, sugar plum fairies are replaced by backpackers and the only mice are attached to the laptops used by Clara and her internet chat room pal known as The Nutcracker.

Bold, imaginative and quite puzzling for some audience members, _The West Australian _reviewer at the time, Naomi Millett, described it as an invitation into the realm of imagination and wonder.

"Potentially, an update of this magnitude could scare off traditionalists," Millett wrote. "But conservative audiences will be relieved - and delighted - to find that despite a new setting, sophisticated mingling of art forms and use of high-tech projection devices, the work leans towards the conventional in structure and choreography."

The Nutcracker may be seen as a cherished artefact, but Cavallari says even the first production in 1892 was a variation of the original vision of French choreographer, Marius Petipa, who died before it could be completed.

Nearly 100 years later, American dance master Mark Morris created a version called The Hard Nut, which was inspired by graphic horror comics and set in 1960s suburbia.

Cavallari's version was the first work to expose Perth audiences to the aesthetic of Sanchi, who returned to the WA Ballet this year to work on Cavallari's world- premiere production of Pinocchio.

There is no superfluous decor. Every object (token pine tree, candy-striped electric fan, taxidermied rodent on a stick) has been carefully selected both to convey symbolic meaning and subtly tie in with the well-known tale and the famous Tchaikovsky score.

"It is kind of a new classic because I do use a lot of classical steps in it," says Cavallari, who was keen to tidy up some of the group dancing for this remounted production. "There is lots and lots of dancing, so it is not just a new take, a modern take. It is very much a dancing party from the beginning to the end."

In 2008, The Nutcracker was a statement of intent from the Italian choreographer looking to stretch WA Ballet's boundaries. Just a few months earlier, he had threatened to quit halfway through his three-year contract if the company's accommodation crisis at His Majesty's Theatre could not be fixed. It had been a rocky start for Cavallari, who had walked into the job in early 2007 in the midst of a dancers' revolt over poor wages.

Now, with an expanded, better-paid company of dancers settled in a spacious and comfortable new ballet centre in Maylands, Cavallari can afford to reflect on the past with a satisfied smile.

"Looking back, we can be extremely happy about where the company is as I prepare to leave," he says. "There is obviously still great room for improvement and it doesn't stop here (under incoming director Aurelien Scannella).

"But for my own personal journey, I think I am the one who has profited the most because I was never an artistic director before and this has been my first company. The first child is always very, very special.

"There is a very particular relationship that you have from day one. We started to walk and learn from one another, step by step together."

Cavallari confesses to experiencing a major culture shock when he arrived in Perth after a 20-year career as dancer and choreographer with the Stuttgart Ballet.

"I had absolutely no notion about Perth or Western Australia whatsoever, so that has been a complete new adventure, which was quite shocking at the beginning. Five or six years ago, Perth was not where it is now. It did change very fast and I can remember wanting to go for a beer at 10pm and there was nothing."

As the company nears the end of its 60th anniversary celebrations, Cavallari is thankful for the support of donors, sponsors and friends of the WA Ballet who enabled the company not only to survive, but thrive. Its dancer ranks expanded from 19 to 32 and nearly $12 million was raised to fit out its new Maylands headquarters.

"We found lots of people came on board to help us. Without that help, it would have been impossible in every way. Once they all embraced the vision, it was much easier to walk towards the goal and so they all made my journey a pleasant one.

"All in all, I will treasure these five or six years and really mean it, forever."

'There is a very particular relationship that you have from day one. We started to walk and learn from one another, step by step together.'

The West Australian

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