Children play in the shadow of a Hill’s Hoist, skipping and kicking a footy ball around as the buzz of cicadas fills the air. An elderly woman passes them, struggling home with a bag of shopping and a tiny Christmas tree. As she turns on the radio, the crackly strains of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score emerge, and the orchestra starts to play.

The Nutcracker, Australian BalletAmelia Soh as Clara the child and Natasha Kusen. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Graeme Murphy’s imaginative and touching retelling of The Nutcracker is worlds removed from traditional productions of the ballet – hence its title Nutcracker – The Story of Clara. And yet it is full of references to the original version, choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1892, while celebrating the history of ballet in Australia and offering moving observations on the life of a dancer. Created for the Australian Ballet in 1992, and affectionately dubbed “The Gum-Nutcracker”, Murphy’s two-act ballet was last seen in 2009. Now, the AB is staging a fourth revival of the work in honour of its 25th anniversary.

Traditionally The Nutcracker is a Christmas ballet with a magician, a child called Clara who dreams of a nutcracker doll-turned-prince, a Mouse King and a Sugar Plum Fairy. Murphy’s take on it is set on a sweltering Christmas Eve in Melbourne in the late 1950s. Clara, now an elderly lady, is a Russian-born former prima ballerina. When a group of her friends, all Russian émigrés, gather at her home, her doctor screens some old black and white footage of them performing in their prime, which inspires them to more laughter-filled dancing. Exhausted, Clara falls into bed and dreams of Bolshevik rats and the death of her young soldier lover.

The Nutcracker, Australian BalletLeanne Stojmenov and Kevin Jackson. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Fighting to dispel such tragic memories, she dreams of dancing once more with her soldier – the only man she has ever loved. From there, she relives the story of her life: her training as a child at the Imperial Conservatoire in St Petersburg, her triumphant appearance at the Mariinsky Theatre in front of the Tsar and Tsrina, the death of her lover during the Russian Revolution, her career touring the world with the Ballets Russes, her arrival in Australia and her final performance there with the Borovansky Ballet (the forerunner to the Australian Ballet). As her dreams fade, Clara falls into a final sleep.

Kristian Fredrikson’s set and costumes evoke with equal authenticity Clara’s frugal existence in 1950s Melbourne and the sumptuous world of St Petersburg society at the turn-of-the-century, while black and white footage depicts the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Ballets Russes tours.

Nutcracker, Australian BalletArtists of the Australian Ballet. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Visually the production is a delight. Fredrikson’s gorgeous costuming includes exquisite white tutus and lavishly ornate outfits at the Mariinsky, the sumptuous attire of Russian society, and glorious pink costumes for the Dance of the Flowers. There is memorable image after image: a giant Russian doll, falling snowflakes echoed in the snow-flake like formations of the choreography, a stage full of people doing Tai Chi in China while Clara is wheeled through them in a rickshaw.

Murphy uses three dancers to play Clara at different stages of her life – as an elderly woman, a prima ballerina, and a child. It’s a beautiful device, which makes for many poignant moments, and some magical effects as they change places and join together.

Nutcracker, Australian BalletAmelia Soh, Leanne Stojmenov and Ai-Gul Gaisina as the three Claras. Photograph © Daniel Boud

The choreography is imbued with emotion at every twist and turn. The pas de deux between Clara the ballerina and her soldier lover are meltingly lovely as their bodies slide, weave and wrap around each other, with all kinds of unusual lifts, while the formal Act 2 grand pas de deux between Clara and her Prince has a bravura dazzle. The undulating lines and ever-changing patterns of his choreography for the corps de ballet is also gorgeous, with formations that are just that little bit unexpected – though some of the dancing was a bit ragged on opening night when absolute precision is required.

Most of the reimagined narrative holds together beautifully. However, the early scenes with the elderly Russian émigrés, followed by the elderly Clara being menaced by Bolshevik rats, do feel a tad over-extended. Obviously, Murphy is responding to the music but it does seem to take a long time until we are finally into the world of fully-fledged ballet dancing. That said, the émigré scenes are full of delightful humour. The second act divertissements – depicted here as stops in Egypt, Spain and China as the Ballets Russes tours the world by ocean liner – also sit a little oddly, though within the narrative they are a pretty good solution.

Nutcracker, Australian BalletLeanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Playing the role of the ballerina Clara on opening night, Leanne Stojmenov was utterly radiant, dancing with a lovely line, grace and expressiveness. She was beautifully partnered by Kevin Jackson as her solider lover (and the doctor) and by a wonderfully poised Jarryd Madden as the Nutcracker Prince. Russian–born Ai-Gul Gaisina, who joined the Australian Ballet in 1973, brought untold poignancy to the role of the elderly Clara and 11-year-old Amelia Soh was charming as the child Clara.

One of the delights of the production is to see such an age range on stage from children in the early Melbourne scenes and at the St Petersburg conservatoire, to ten guest artists in the mature roles as émigrés and wealthy ballet patrons, with Colin Peasley as the Dance Master at the Conservatoire and Patrick Harding-Irmer giving a humorous portrayal of an Australian reporter.

The other joy of any Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s sparkling score, though here the playing of the Opera Australian Orchestra under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon felt rather languid at times, with room for a more passionate reading.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara has great heart, a gentle sense of humour, some lovely choreography and a story worth telling. What’s more, it speaks directly to us here in Australia. All in all, an extremely touching night at the ballet.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara runs at the Sydney Opera House until May 20 and then plays at Arts Centre Melbourne, June 2 – 10