A five star show to start the Australian Ballet’s year

The Australian Ballet delivered a triple treat on the opening night of the company’s 2015 season.

Madeleine Eastoe, Kevin Jackson and Ako Kondo gave outstanding performances as Odette, Prince Siegfried and Baroness von Rothbart, (the evil mistress in a doomed love triangle) in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake.

Eastoe’s interpretation was ravishing. A decade ago when the Australian Ballet was on tour in the United Kingdom she drew praise from the doyen of English ballet critics, Clement Crisp.

It’s not easy to please Mr Crisp who saw the company perform in Cardiff at the start of the tour. He wrote in The Financial Times: “Madeleine Eastoe as Odette is an outstanding artist of extraordinary range and unfailing power”.

I was in the audience at Cardiff so I can confidently say that on opening night last Friday at Capitol Theatre, Sydney, she was even more heart wrenching and believable than she was in 2005.

It was her interpretation of the fragile heroine that resonated more powerfully than any other element of the performance in Sydney, one rewarded with a standing ovation, but not just for Eastoe but also for Jackson and Kondo and the entire cast.

Jackson’s role is challenging on two levels, but he nailed it. The role calls for superhuman stamina in order to sustain the many lifts, but it also calls for subtle acting skills as this Siegfried must interpret the character of a man who blatantly cheats on his bride at his own wedding, but who is forced to confront his tragic mistake by the final act.

He shows his remorse in the manner of many conflicted anti-heroes of ballet who express anguish, sorrow and grief as the curtain falls, as we see in La Sylphide, Giselle, the traditional Swan Lake and Manon. Each has this standard mea culpa ending but each calls for finesse rather than melodrama.

Jackson was believable and empathetic even while dancing the difficult, introverted and sometimes overwrought solos in which he agonises over his choices.

Kondo was a compelling Baroness, so witty, pretty and charming that the Prince’s desire for her was understandable. Kondo is known for her sparkling technique and charismatic manner but with this portrayal I believe Kondo has proved she has the artistry to take her to the next level.

Guest artists Shane Carroll, Matthew Donnelly, Colin Peasley, Andris Toppe and Frank Leo reprise their character roles with their usual flair and the always intriguing interpretation by Murphy of the pas de quatre for the Cygnets, danced on opening night by Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanesca and Heidi Martin was a pleasure to watch. Despite the intricacy of Murphy’s choreography the women looked as though they were having fun.

The choreography for the work, created in 2002, represents contemporary ballet in every aspect of those two words.

Murphy blends somersaults with sissonnes, floor rolls with pas de chat. Classical ballet steps intermingle with his own brand of contemporary dance that encompasses contractions, open hands, one dancer walking on other dancers’ backs, bodies held in fetal positions, a man holding a woman and swinging her in his arms, and arms wrapped around the chest to signify anguish.

(Alistair Macaulay, critic for The New York Times, tut-tutted when the Australian Ballet brought Murphy’s work to New York in 2012.

“With this production as its calling card”, he wrote, “the Australian Ballet…is not serious about wanting to be a serious ballet company”.

So what does that make the company in his view? Perhaps frivolous, flippant, trivial?)

But esoteric detail about what’s classical and what’s not is not the most interesting issue when we look once again at Murphy’s work.

The more intriguing question is, why do audiences from Shanghai to Paris to Sydney like it so much?

Steven Heathcote, the first principal to dance as Prince Siegfried in Murphy’s ballet, believes it’s because we all relate to unrequited love. On stage or on the page, the protagonist is in love, but the loved one loves someone else.

Murphy’s Swan Lake has been ridiculed for being based on just such a triangle, Prince Charles, his wife, Diana and mistress, Camilla, and that unfortunate and long ago affair has dated the work and made it more vulnerable for criticism.

Thirteen years after the premiere of the ballet, we have to let go of the House of Windsor drama and see it for what it is, a story of betrayal that’s the rock solid centre to so many ballet narratives, among them La Sylphide, Giselle, La Bayadere, Onegin, Manon and Mayerling.

Betrayal, revenge, despair and dying of a broken heart – yes, we still love this melodramatic quartet and when Tchaikovsky’s music propels the story, so much the better.

It’s not the choreography that captures the audience as it is the emotion. At the Australian Ballet’s 185th performance of Murphy’s Swan Lake on 20 February, seasoned members of the audience were telling one another that the story brought them to the brink of tears – again. And the curtain calls brought the audience to their feet – again.

The ballet looks better at the Capitol Theatre than it does at the Sydney Opera House. The stage is bigger and the dancers can move with more freedom.

The expanse of the stage also enhances the designs. Kristian Fredrikson’s contribution to the ballet’s success can’t be overstated. With Murphy and Janet Vernon he created not only the beautiful costumes and décor, but also the entire concept of the ballet. Along with his great contribution to Murphy’s Nutcracker, it was the pinnacle of his achievement as a designer.

He loved fabric, embellishment, ease of movement for the dancers, and glamour. Fredrikson’s costume designs are at their best in Act I an Act III although the setting for Odette’s imaginary journey from the confines of her room in a mental hospital to a lakeside is encapsulated powerfully by the backdrop of M.C Escher’s artwork, Rippled Surface.

In Act 1, the dancers appear as if in an Edwardian painting touched by sunlight. The women celebrating the wedding of the Prince and Odette wear flattering ivory coloured costumes, hats, pearls, gloves and parasols and the men are elegant in dove grey suits with waistcoats, cravats and pocket handkerchiefs. No detail was too small for Fredrikson.

The wedding party’s costumes are even more elegant with Odette’s wedding dress the most beautiful of all with its train that goes on forever. Of all his costumes, this will probably be seen as Fredrikson’s most memorable.

The evening gowns of Act III are just as stunning but as the story has taken a darker direction, the costumes of black and dark blue reflect the tragedy to come and within the darkness arrives a surprise guest, Odette, dressed in white.

From the first time I saw Murphy’s Swan Lake more than a decade ago, the connection I made with the narrative was closer to Giselle than it was to the traditional Swan Lake. Both tell of an innocent young woman who is betrayed by an aristocrat. Both Giselle and Murphy’s Odette lose their sanity when the truth is revealed and both are entrapped in a place where they are transformed into creatures in a supernatural world.

There’s still a great deal to admire and interpret in Murphy’s Swan Lake but I hope Australian Ballet can develop a new production that is just as fail safe in boosting the box office and demonstrating the artistry of the company.

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Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin, photo © Branco Gaica

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin, photo © Branco Gaica

Madeleine Eastoe, the Australian Ballet, Swan Lake Act III, photo © Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe, the Australian Ballet, Swan Lake Act III, photo © Lisa Tomasetti

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe in the Australian Ballet's Swan Lake, choreographed by Graeme Murphy, photo © Lisa Tomasetti

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe in the Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake, choreographed by Graeme Murphy, photo © Lisa Tomasetti

Rippled Surface, M.C. Escher

Rippled Surface, M.C. Escher