Swan Lake | American Ballet TheatreLeft – Scene from Swan Lake. Photo – Rosalie O'Connor. Cover – Corey Stearns. Photo – Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake is, in many ways, an unassailable titan.

The latest major-scale ballet production to be brought to Brisbane by QPAC’s International Series (following last year’s performances by Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet and Germany’s Hamburg Ballet in 2012), Swan Lake is a product of incalculably vast resources, mammoth professional expertise – in terms of both dancers and production values – and, frankly, staggering cultural capital.

Which is to say; criticism and praise are largely flies on the windshield of the hulking semi-trailer that is Swan Lake – piffling little things that will do nothing to impede or assist its progress through Queensland’s cultural landscape. Given the resources invested and cultural capital attached, Swan Lake was unlikely to ever disappoint.

In order to satisfy, it simply needed to deliver a relatively straightforward vision of Swan Lake that didn’t challenge too many memories of the masterwork that many, aficionados and non- alike, consider synonymous with the ballet form. And, unsurprisingly, it does. As vast, beautiful, traditionalist escapism, Swan Lake is a clear success.

The sets are huge, panoramic and detailed – with just enough ingenuity and mobility to seem a little bit magical. A cleverly-arranged combination of painted set curtains sees a forestry of greenery segue beautifully to a ghostly plateau. The titular lake sees the stage flooded with low-hanging sheets of fog. A prelude makes beautiful use of a scrim to facilitate clever shifts in character.

The dancers are obviously exceptional ­– Hee Seo’s performance as Odette/Odile is particularly immaculate – and the costumes are colourful and finessed. The multiple faces of villain Von Rothbart alone (performed as both a handsome prince and inhuman monster by Roman Zhurban and Alexandre Hammoudi) serve as a showcase of the range and skill of designer Santo Loquasto.

In other words; it’s, as was almost always guaranteed, a big, beautiful production that will excite and thrill lovers of ballet and Swan Lake alike. Vast, beautiful, traditionalist escapism.

Of course, measured as a work in a more evaluative context (as is somewhat required of a review), Swan Lake does end up looking a little different.

In a work of such a scale, details are often what will speak to a work’s quality. In the case of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake, there are details that work in its favour and details that work against it. In regards to the former, you have the performances of Hee Seo as Odette/Odile and Corey Stearns as Siegfried.

In spite of their working within such a broad and overtly theatrical context and being saddled with some of the most demanding (and scrutinised) choreography, Seo and Stearns bring genuine pathos, depth and sincerity to their characters that truly elevates their work. If Swan Lake is built on romance, Seo and Stearns provide ample foundation for the work’s success.

In regards to details that work against Swan LakeAmerican Ballet Theatre and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (charged with performing Tchaikovsky’s legendary score) never quite seem to agree upon rhythm and timing in the work’s opening night performance. In key moments (such as Les Quatre Cygnettes), orchestra and company find a rhythmic synchronicity. Otherwise, it varies.

Often, dancers land slightly ahead of the orchestra’s rhythm or slightly behind. Dancer’s pirouettes don’t land on clear orchestral accents, for example. To many, it would be a small quibble. In some respects, it actually showed some of the true talent of the company’s cast ­– some dancers better at finding their rhythm than others ­– but, given the scope of the work, it’s frustrating.

Furthermore, a lack of tight rhythmic propulsion within the work would seem to unbalance Swan Lake’s overall sense of pacing. It shifts from richly engrossing to a little bit dull. Ballet is a luxurious form, in regards to structure and progression, but American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake too often feels like it is lagging or leaden.

The other detail that throws the work somewhat are simply a handful of imprecise production flourishes that tilt the work from broad and beautiful to a little bit too cheesy ­– specifically, in regard to the work’s resolution and more fantastical narrative elements. It’s admittedly, ultimately, a small detail – but, again, that is what makes or breaks a titan like ABT’s Swan Lake.

Which is not to say that Swan Lake is broken. As outlined above, it does what many will expect it to do admirably. It also has a handful of flaws that mean some theatre-goers will find it a bit of a struggle. And, while it’s tempting to ascribe more weight to one critique over another, that’s not really how it works ­– your enjoyment of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake will simply vary according to what you value in your work.

Many will love it; others, however, may find it a bit stuffy.

QPAC and Tourism and Events Queensland in association with the Brisbane Festival present
Swan Lake
American Ballet Theatre

Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Cultural Precinct, South Bank, Brisbane
Dates: Thursday 28 August – Thursday 4 September, 2014 (9 performances only)
Bookings: www.qpac.com.au | 136 246