Rhinegold Photo credit: Andrew Mason

Claire Jackson

A Leap Of The Imagination

1:59, 10th September 2018

A unique multimedia project, built around settings of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite featuring solo piano and ballerina, is about to set off on an ambitious international tour. Claire Jackson meets the project’s creator, Alexandra Dariescu, a pianist who likes to think differently

ALEXANDRA DARIESCU stands out in the crowded Southbank café, where harassed parents juggle conversation and pre-schoolers and freelancers tap laptops. The Romanian pianist is poised, striking, and unruffled from her cycle into south London. She bikes everywhere, she tells me as she purchases our drinks, even to her own recitals. ‘Conductors can’t believe it,’ she smiles.

There’s an aura of the unbelievable around Dariescu. The pianist is about to take her imaginative multi-media project The Nutcracker and I on an international 40-date tour across Europe (including the London Piano Festival on 7 October), China and Australia, having just released the CD and accompanying book of the same name on the Signum label. The production premiered last December at the Barbican’s Milton Court Concert Hall and delighted audiences – including this writer – for its whimsical reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s classic, created for ballerina and pianist, with digital animation.

The inspiration for the project came ‘as a necessity in trying to do something that will attract younger audiences to the concert hall,’ says Dariescu. But like all good things, the process took some time. ‘The idea came a bit more than three years ago and then I spent about a year talking to lots of promoters. It also took a long time to find the right partners: the choreographer, the ballerinas, the digital company.’

Dariescu performs The Nutcracker and I with ballerina Désirée Ballantyne - © NIGEL NORRINGTON
Dariescu performs The Nutcracker and I with ballerina Désirée Ballantyne – © NIGEL NORRINGTON

What’s more, not all the music had been transcribed or arranged for piano. ‘I love the Mikhail Pletnev arrangements,’ says Dariescu, ‘and there’s Percy Grainger’s Waltz of the Flowers, but I needed another three movements so I commissioned Gavin Sutherland [music director for English National Ballet].’ Sutherland suggested that Dariescu approach choreographer Jenna Lee, who then sourced the dancers. The story for the companion audiobook was written by IP contributor Jessica Duchen and narrated by children’s TV presenter Lindsey Russell. ‘Jessica really understood my story,’ says Dariescu. ‘She’s got this fantastic way with words and it was exactly what I was dreaming of.’

The production is an interactive piano performance that sees interplay between pianist, ballerina and digital forms. The result is reminiscent of the penguin scene in Mary Poppins, where actors and animated characters dance together – but of course this version is live, and uses more sophisticated technology, envisaged by Yeast Culture. ‘We started with six animators but in the end we had more than 30 on the project,’ explains Dariescu. ‘Everything was hand-drawn. They used 12 drawings per second, so there are 50 minutes in the performance and we had more than 35,000 drawings.’ It was vital for Dariescu that the piano was not lost to the action on stage. ‘This is a piano recital and I did not want it to get lost in the background. I think it comes across as chamber music really, because you’ve got the real ballerina and the producer, or the magic man as I call him! Live performance is never the same twice, so if you want to take a little bit more time on something you can do and the animation will still work.’

Seeing the Nutcracker and I during its premiere run on a chilly December night last year was the perfect festive treat. It does, I venture, feel a little out of place to be discussing an inherently Christmassy piece in the middle of summer. ‘It’s a fairy tale at the end of the day. There is a bit of snow at the beginning and the Christmas tree but it’s mainly about dreaming,’ Dariescu says. ‘It tells my story from being a little girl who dreamed of being a concert pianist to achieving that dream. It helps that most of the tour dates are between November 2018 and January 2019. Although we did perform it in the Perth Festival in Scotland. It was great to revisit The Nutcracker in May,’ she grins.

The three-month tour will be a new challenge for Dariescu. ‘Tours for piano recitals or concertos are normally a lot shorter, you are away for a week, maximum two,’ she says. ‘This is why it’s good to have a ballerina with you because she stretches all the time, she does a lot of yoga, she is very zen and is quite an inspiration. Lots of these places will be my debuts in those territories – and I’ve never been to Australia, so that’s really exciting.’

A survey undertaken during the December performances revealed that more than 35 per cent of the audience were under 31, at both performances, suggesting that Dariescu is achieving her overall objective to bring younger people to classical music. ‘We had five times more young people than the national average in the UK, she says, adding ‘I was really chuffed about that.’


‘I am careful about my hands but I’m not too precious about it’ - © ADRIAN STOICOVICIU
‘I am careful about my hands but
I’m not too precious about it’ – © ADRIAN STOICOVICIU

AS WELL AS PROMOTING AND performing The Nutcracker and I, Dariescu is working on some exciting repertoire for next year. She performs Nadia Boulanger’s Fantaisie variée for piano and orchestra with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and James Gaffigan at the Barbican (6 April 2019), as part of a BBC SO Total Immersion event to showcase the work of the often overlooked Lili and Nadia Boulanger. ‘The music is so gorgeous I never understand why it’s not being played,’ says Dariescu. ‘Promoting female composers is really starting to make a difference.’ Dariescu will also include Lili Boulanger’s Prelude in D-flat and Trois morceaux pour piano at her Wigmore recital (14 April).

Dariescu’s interest in cycling extends beyond commuting to concerts and interviews; she recently purchased an unusual tandem that caters for the professional pianist. ‘Whenever you cycle you use a lot of weight on your wrists and arms – I wanted something that my husband and I could use for day trips. With this amazing tandem I basically lie down and I don’t have to use my hands at all, while my partner steers. All I have to do is pedal!’ The couple caused quite a commotion when they did the London to Brighton cycle ride on the Cambridge-made contraption. ‘I am careful about my hands but I’m not too precious about it,’ Dariescu says. ‘Some pianists won’t even chop vegetables. There’s balance in everything.’ Wise words from an inspiringly savvy 21st-century artist.


The Nutcracker and I by Alexandra Dariescu closes this year’s London Piano Festival at Kings Place on Sunday 7 October 2018. The project will tour to Europe, China and Australia between 19 November and 27 January 2019.

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