The Australian Ballet’s birthday offering: a Swan Lake to cherish

The Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary year came to a celebratory conclusion last evening with Stephen Baynes’s new Swan Lake, created in collaboration with the designer, Hugh Colman.
Baynes has choreographed a more than worthy successor to the company’s most recent traditional production, (Anne Woolliams, 1977) and its hard working contemporary production of a decade ago (Graeme Murphy, 2002).

The new Lake is distinguished by a secure narrative arc, the most luscious costumes for the company since those of the late Kristian Fredrikson (for Murphy’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake), a design concept that is both elegant and intriguing, a well thought out characterisation for von Rothbart, and a standout opening night performance by Amber Scott as Odette/Odile, who was supported by the strong partnering of Adam Bull as Siegfried.

The production is traditional in one sense, in that Ivanov’s choreography for Act II, and the black swan pas de deux and variations of Act III, remain, however most of the rest has been re-choreographed by Baynes (who nevertheless remains true to the classical vocabulary).

Some will argue that this is not a “traditional” production at all, but as history proves, tradition and Swan Lake is a slippery concept.

Baynes and Colman have given Siegfried a back-story, however they minimise the importance of the Queen’s relationship with Siegfried, and more problematically, eliminate von Rothbart as a physical (if not ectoplasmic) presence in Act II.

A program article explains that Baynes was unimpressed by the dated image of a pantomime von Rothbart, a kind of “Disney owl”. So, no more swirling capes or aluminium foil accessories and other unintentionally comic guises for the villain.

But for newcomers to the ballet, von Rothbart’s absence in Act II might be confusing. Baynes’s production does not include mime, and even if it did, without the villain on stage, it would be very difficult to express the Act II story of how Odette was captured by von Rothbart who has subjected her to a life as half woman, half swan.

Baynes and Colman have set their production in the Prussian court of the 1890s (the decade in which Petipa/Ivanov’s Swan Lake premiered). The Queen, an outsider – she is Russian – is in black, in mourning still for her husband who died when Siegfried was a child, and Siegfried as a young adult is a military officer, as are his friends.

In a prologue, Siegfried remembers his father’s funeral by the lake in which a vessel in the shape of a black swan (with a crown on its head) carries the body. The swan boat brings to mind a distant image of Diaghilev’s black funeral gondola on the Venice lagoon but I think its purpose is to stress the importance of the lake and water in the story, in that Odette and the swan corps are watery creatures rather than feathery airborne beings, with the pearls on their headdresses and tutus reinforcing the idea that they are water spirits.

Unlike most Swan Lakes, the lake (realistically sparkling throughout) is always visible in Baynes’s production, and is seen at first beyond a large gate that partially separates the celebrations of Siegfried’s birthday with the romantic landscape beyond.

Act I is slow to gather pace, as Siegfried’s melancholy over his father’s long ago death casts a pall on all the dancing and the ineffectual efforts of his friends to bring some cheer to the proceedings.

It’s not until a pas de trois (not the traditional version but one replete with multiple and tricky turns) does the ballet come to life. The three dancers are given the titles of Benno (the prince’s friend), The Duchess and The Countess, but their characters do not go on to play a major role in the production. First cast of Ty King-Wall, Dana Stephensen and Lana Jones, were outstanding in these roles.

Four foreign princesses, all potential brides, were briefly introduced to Siegfried by his mother. He rejects them and his mother leaves the stage in a huff.

In Act II, Odette’s presence is signified by a projection that bursts into the night sky like a cross between a large white airliner about to land and a nightmarish vision of a monstrous white bird which initially seemed like von Rothbart’s arrival in white.

But fears of projection-mania were put at rest with an impeccable interpretation of Ivanov’s choreography – Mariinsky style – of the swan corps and Amber Scott whose tender Odette was more of a woman than a swan, and whose balances and poses in attitude made it appear that she was born to stand in that almost impossible position (for a normal human being).

Scott, as Odette, was the violin solo made visible in movement.

Baynes and Colman appear to have relished the setting and scenario of Act III in which the Russian and Spanish divertissements are more cohesive than normal as the dancers appear at first as the motley crew accompanying von Rothbart.

He and his accomplices appear en masse upstage as a curtain imprinted with a version of the Prussian coat of arms is drawn apart to reveal a Hall of Mirrors at Versailles painted backdrop complete with sparkling chandeliers.

To this point, the décor had been monotone, and the costumes in the delicate shades of lavender and blue (with the Queen – played by former Australian Ballet principal, Lisa Bolte, dressed in a diamond diadem, choker and royal blue and purple). But von Rothbart and friends inject a Cirque du Soleil like splash of colour and style with the Spaniards (Laura Tong, Rudy Hawkes, Amy Harris and Jake Mangakahia) attacking their dance like a pack of gypsies on fire (instead of the usual, insipid Spanish dance in which the men and women pout and appear to have paid a visit to the corner fancy dress store).

They were followed by an altogether different Russian dance with the Cossack men (Chengwu Guo, Calvin Hannaford, Cameron Hunter and Benjamin Stuart-Carberry) a strong frame for the dignified Russian princess (Robyn Hendricks).

But the eye is drawn from start to finish by von Rothbart in red wig, sparkling vest and coat and sea green tights, manipulating a violin as he introduces the black swan to the naïve Siegfried. Brett Simon made the most of this fascinating interpretation of the villain, one who dominates the scene as powerfully as the black leathered garbed villain of Matthew Bourne’s ballroom scene in his production of Swan Lake.

Scott’s Odile was subtle in her mannerisms as she echoed Odette’s vulnerability and Bull, I believe, captured the audience’s sympathy in his reckless acceptance of Odile and final despair at her duplicity. Colman’s insertion of a slash of white satin within the blackness of Odile’s tutu was a nice touch.

Act IV, so often a sigh and a slight let down at the end of Swan Lake, was powered by the strength of the very well rehearsed corps through which Siegfried disappears to drown himself in the lake. Not that we see that. Only the program notes let the audience know that he has drowned, only to be recovered from the watery depths by von Rothbart in the black swan funeral boat.

The villain holds the dead Siegfried in his arms in a Pieta like pose.

This may not be a Swan Lake for first timers, necessarily, or for young children. But it’s a thoughtful production, with entrancing décor and costumes, and one that should have a long life in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire.

First cast:
Odette: Amber Scott
Prince: Adam Bull
Rothbart: Brett Simon
Benno: Ty King-Wall
Countess: Lana Jones
Duchess: Dana Stephensen
Queen: Lisa Bolte
Chancellor: Tristan Message
Siegfried’s Nurse: Terese Power
Conductor: Nicolette Fraillon

At the State Theatre, Melbourne until 29 September, then the Sydney Opera House, 30 November – 19 December, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, 22 February- 2 March, 2013 and Adelaide Festival Centre, 5 July-11 July, 2013

3 Comments

  1. Posted September 20, 2012 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    Valerie, how will they ever get all this on our stage? It must have been marvellous in Melbourne. Robert

  2. valerie
    Posted September 20, 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    I know, it’s the same sad story about the Sydney Opera House stage. I think the setting will still be impressive but the impact of the swan corps won’t be as strong

  3. Annie Carroll
    Posted September 20, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    After many years dancing as a member of the corps de ballet in Swan Lake, both the traditional with The Royal Ballet in London, and Graeme Murphy’s interpretation as a member of The Australian Ballet from 2008-2010, I have had the opportunity to reflect upon this ballet in its various guises.

    While Murphy’s production (and Bourne’s and many others) have breathed new life into Tchaikovsky’s score, creating some very memorable theatrical moments in the process, it is, and will always be, the traditional Swan Lake that acts as a benchmark for not only a ballet company, but for those lucky enough to perform Odette/Odile and Siegfried. Baynes’ production is respectful to the traditional choreography and, to me, there was certainly a sense that Ivanov and Petipa would be pleased with the way he has left the most famous of the choreography untouched. Amber Scott as Odette/Odile was sublime in her execution of the fiercely technical double role. For a woman in The Australian Ballet, it is not often enough that the challenge of a full-length traditional classical ballet is presented, let alone the challenge of dancing the principal role in such a work. The role of Odette/Odile is often described by female dancers who have tackled it as the hardest role in any full-length ballet. In fact, as a wide-eyed 15 year-old being coached in the eastern suburbs of Sydney by ex-Australian Ballet principal Vicki Attard, I would ask her what was harder: Aurora or Odette/Odile? The answer was always a resounding Odette/Odile. It is not just the technical feats that the ballerina must perform in this role, but the contrasting characterisations. There is always one of the two that the ballerina feels more comfortable with. For Scott, it is clear that Odette, the white swan, is her role. She floated across the stage in Acts 2 & 4 with such delicacy and tenderness, her line flawless, and her fragility next to the tall Bull was perfectly illuminated. Scott’s Black Swan is clearly a greater challenge for her. But for any dancer, the switch from fragile innocence to malevolent sensuality is extremely challenging. The Black Swan pas de deux in Act 3 is home to those famous fouettes, and the solos for both man and woman are intensely difficult. At The Royal Ballet School, we were virtually forbidden from attempting to perform this solo because it was felt that did we not have the technical ability to pull it off, nor did we understand Odile as a character – we were not yet women. So, before a critic comments on the short-comings of the dancers, I urge them to consider what they cannot really grasp: what it must be like to get up on a stage before 3,000 people and perform this role. It is not ours to slander, because we, as Australians, are not well-versed enough in these traditional ballets. It is something Australian audiences and critics are starved of: tradition. Traditional classical ballets have become so rare in this country that we can’t even recognize the beauty of a perfect arabesque, or the simplicity of a gracefully arched foot, so consumed are we with ‘modern’ work – isolations and floor sweeping movements. In order for modern works to be fully appreciated, traditional works must be kept alive. It is in their polarity that their merits are revealed. We can’t have one without the other. And it seems that for some, it has been too long between drinks for the traditional Swan Lake. We haven’t seen the control of Odette’s solo in Act 2 or the lines of the corps swans for so long that we’ve almost forgotten what we’re looking for. It was evident on the opening night that it was all there, to me at least. Perhaps I can attribute that to show after show in London as a swan in the Royal’s traditional version, but I knew what I was looking for, and it was all there.

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Brett Simon as Von Rothbart and artists of The Australian Ballet in Swan Lake, photo © Jeff Busby

Brett Simon as von Rothbart and artists of The Australian Ballet in Swan Lake, photo © Jeff Busby

Adam Bull and artists of The Australian Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo © Jeff Busby

Adam Bull and artists of The Australian Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo © Jeff Busby

Amber Scott in Swan Lake,  photo © Jeff Busby

Amber Scott in Swan Lake, photo © Jeff Busby

Lisa Bolte in Swan Lake. Photo © Lynette Wills

Lisa Bolte as the Queen in Swan Lake. Photo © Lynette Wills

Amy Harris, Swan Lake Act III, photo © Lynette Wills

Amy Harris, Swan Lake Act III, photo © Lynette Wills