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Review

Sweet As Sugarplum

A review of Goh Ballet’s film, The Nutcracker, Beyond the Stage: Fallen Prince By Brannavy Jeyasundaram
  • Goh Ballet dancer / Photo courtesy of Goh Ballet

Online, December 18, 2020 - January 2, 2021

There are few productions that animate the Christmas season as much as The Nutcracker. While not everyone is familiar with the dark fantasy of Hoffmann’s 19th-century story, Tchaikovsky’s ballet adaptation is a part of winter’s iconography. Goh Ballet’s Nutcracker has been embedded into the company’s repertoire since its premiere in 2009. Every year, Goh Ballet hosts open-call auditions merging dancers across coasts and companies in its show – except for this year, of course.

As the prospect of a live performance diminished, Goh Ballet pivoted to film. The Nutcracker, Beyond the Stage: Fallen Prince is an original story directed by Lukas Dong with dance direction from Chan Hon Goh, the company’s director. It tells the story of a student at Goh Ballet’s senior professional school, Alex Stonehouse, and weaves choreographed scenes from Goh’s Nutcracker with Stonehouse’s harsh reality as a ballet dancer in flux. A half-hour in length, Fallen Prince captivates the viewer by sharing a story of personal triumph made possible through the fantastical capabilities of dance. It contrasts Stonehouse’s inner turmoil with dazzling dance sequences witnessed through the eyes of a child. With limited dimension, it is nevertheless imbued with warmth and, much like the original production, made to be enjoyed with loved ones. 

The film opens with a striking mirror sequence: dancers prepare for the company’s Nutcracker auditions at the barre. Stonehouse is visibly nervous. Despite encouraging words from Goh – “Your feet are your feet” – he offers a less than convincing performance. Throughout his audition, the camera expertly switches from shoulder level to wide angle and offers intimate close-ups of a flustered Stonehouse and expectant Goh. We are then transported to a dream state showing Stonehouse onstage as the Prince with Clara in tow and the delicate Waltz of the Snowflakes. Before his fantasy settles, we are thrown into 2020 where Stonehouse sports an aqua mask and is working as a takeout delivery driver. 

Dancers with Goh Ballet / Photo courtesy of Goh Ballet

 

The following scene in Stonehouse’s living room will feel the most relatable to dancers attempting to maintain rigour via Zoom. After shoving his couch against the wall to make room for his lesson, Stonehouse hastily places his laptop on his coffee table. In a swift transition from pirouette to attitude, he kicks a bowl onto the floor and receives a phone call from his mom. The inelegance of this moment encapsulates the current conditions of so many. 

Behind the scenes of Fallen Prince / Photo courtesy of Goh Ballet

 

During the phone call, Stonehouse’s dad willfully abstains from speaking to him, presumably because he disapproves of his son’s artistic pursuits. This is a father-son dynamic we see often in media depictions of young male dancers; disappointingly in Fallen Prince, their relationship remains unresolved. Stonehouse’s personal transformation and eventual self-acceptance seems to take place separately from his paternal relationship, which some might see as a missed opportunity.

At the film’s climax, Stonehouse withdraws from the ballet. In his email to Goh, he cites a lack of improvement and his belief that he is an “embarrassment to the company.” This is paralleled with a dynamic stage sequence where the Prince faces off the advancing army of mice. The Mouse King and Stonehouse perform an electric duel sequence, drowned by a cool blue light. The excitement of live performance is imitated through rapid cuts, and when Stonehouse falls to his defeat, the camera looms above him in an overhead shot with the shadows of the victorious mouse army falling over his face, adding poetic drama. 

Dancers with Goh Ballet / Photo courtesy of Goh Ballet

 

Stonehouse’s eventual return to self is sparked when a flautist named Clara requests a takeout delivery order from him. Despite the fact that Clara cancels the order, her name compels Stonehouse to deliver her meal, leading him to a rooftop. There he sees her playing her instrument, wrapped in the winter sky, and Stonehouse’s passion for dance is reignited. This is cut through with scenes from Stonehouse’s first encounter with The Nutcracker, watching Goh’s Sugarplum Fairy from the wings as a child. In Goh’s first performance since her retirement 10 years ago, she performs the iconic Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy with a birdlike quality. She is precise and graceful in equal measure, mesmerizing both young Stonehouse and viewers with each shift of her wrist. It is this memory that reminds Stonehouse of his devotion to dance. 

Goh / Photo courtesy of Goh Ballet

 

Back at Stonehouse’s car, he plays a voicemail message left by Goh. Though meant to be poignant, her words feel flat. She says: “I want you to remember disappointment is a part of our art; the other part is love. Nobody wants to talk about trying to be perfect all the time and feeling like a disappointment – we learn, we get stronger and we get better.” Laying platitudes over ballet’s cutthroat culture rather than speaking to the profound desire to dance, the speech positions disappointment as integral to the art form rather than questioning its source and its consequences and as such, again, feels like a missed opportunity. 

The film closes in Stonehouse’s living room where he performs the same sequence he once stumbled over during his audition with newfound confidence. His Vans serve as pointe shoes. The escalation of strings in Tchaikovsky’s Final Waltz is the perfect accompaniment to this moment. With the grand landing of his pirouette, Stonehouse is recommitted to the company, the role of the Prince and his art. 

Dancers with Goh Ballet / Photo courtesy of Goh Ballet

 

Fallen Prince is a reimagination of live performance during a period devoid of gatherings. Goh Ballet’s ambitious undertaking succeeds in capturing the magic of The Nutcracker for people of all age groups, especially children. While the dialogue feels fraught at times, Dong is a master of the lens and produces dazzling images that elevate the dance sequences. Stonehouse’s performance is wonderfully honest, capturing the fragility of the young man’s aspirations. Collectively, Fallen Prince serves as an enchanting portal to another realm until we are able to meet at the theatre again.

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