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