Swan Lake | The Australian BalletLeft - Kirsty Martin & Damien Welch (photo - Jeff Busby). Cover - Swan Lake (photo - Jim McFarlane)

Australian ballet lovers are already very familiar with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake which first premiered in Melbourne in 2002. Now into its third Australian season, audiences still cannot get enough of this extravagantly designed, contemporary ballet and it is not hard to see why. With collaborators Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson, Murphy puts modern twists on a familiar tale and creates a movement vocabulary that, while certainly owing to ballet, is often more fluid, more floor-bound and full of pregnant pauses in a way that classical form is often not.

From the very opening image when Odette (Kirsty Martin) dreams of the embrace of her lover, Prince Siegfried (Damien Welch), but is tormented by visions of him with her rival, Baroness von Rothbart (Olivia Bell), Murphy sets up a highly dramatic scene. The stillness of the characters speaks louder than their steps. A flowing curtain outlines bodies which Siegfried caresses. A quick, frantic bedroom scene confirms Odette’s fears. With little actual movement Murphy establishes the love triangle that defines the entire ballet and makes way for Odette’s descent into madness and the sanatorium. 

Act One is the wedding party which is filled with much exuberant choreography and playful lifts. There is the catching of the bouquet, specialty dances and a generally uplifting mood. But underlying the lush fairytale scene is the dark fact that Siegfried and the Baroness have a deep connection. Here Murphy’s choreography, with its use of duets between the three main characters against a backdrop of the wedding guests, shows that relationship. Odette and the Baroness compete for Siegfried’s attention. Three is most definitely a crowd and Odette finds herself on the outside and is eventually taken away by a physician and nurses in large, oddly shaped nun’s habits.

It is not a typical wedding scene for a classical ballet. Nor is the sanatorium - a fantastic white room with bathtub and large pipes going up one wall. Odette huddles upstage and has disturbing visions of her lover with his paramour. She sees them outside her window against a backdrop of zigzagging thunderous lines. In her fantasy duet with Siegfried she is barefoot and erratic, jerking herself around like a frenzied swan with her arms flaying behind and bent sharply at the wrists. This duet is full of contemporary movement, with lifts that drop straight to the ground and much pulling and suspending of shapes.

Murphy’s treatment of the swans is similarly modern. While he keeps the traditional quartet of cygnets (Reiko Hombo, Ikue Shiga, Leanne Stomenov and Miwako Kubota) doing their famous linear dance, this dissipates into a large scene of 16 swans in swirling lines and duets, all against a fantastic white round disc that makes the resting swans appear like they are floating, suspended on the lake. This later reverses from a scene of snowy white to a scene of foreboding black as Odette descends into the world of madness, represented by the black swans. The swarm of swans is an arresting visual and the corps de ballet looked tight and clean with their unison work on Saturday night.

What is most satisfying about this Swan Lake is its continuity and thoughtfulness of design and its ability to tell its story without a lot of posturing and miming typical of more traditional ballet. It’s lush, full of emotion and has many beautifully danced sections. Saturday’s cast was strong, especially Bell as the Baroness, who evoked all the regal haughtiness of her adulterous character and was a perfect foil to Martin’s fragility.

Tchakovsky’s score was skillfully handled under musical director Nicolette Frallion, concertmaster Roger Jonsson and Orchestra Victoria.

The Australian Ballet presents
Swan Lake

with Orchestra Victoria

Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre
Dates: 14/3/2008 - 26/3/2008
Duration: approx 175 minutes, incl. two 20-minute intervals
Bookings: 1300 136 166 or ticketmaster.com.au

with Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

Venue: Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 4/4/2008 - 24/4/2008
Duration: approx 175 minutes, incl. two 20-minute intervals
Bookings: Box Office (02) 9250 7777 | sydneyoperahouse.com.au | Ticketek* 132 849 or ticketek.com.au | *Ticketek per ticket selling fee will apply

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