Left – Adam Bull and Amber Scott. Cover – the cast. Photos – Daniel Boud
The Australian Ballet's current offering of the eternally famous Swan Lake is an interesting production that ranges from the ordinary to the breathtakingly exquisite. Much of the choreography has been created anew by choreographer Stephen Baynes, whilst the second act passages and the famous Act 3 'Black Swan' pas de deux have been kept from the original version of the ballet. The music is pure Tchaikovsky and all additions from other composers have been removed from the score; the orchestra – under the baton of guest conductor Andrew Mogrelia and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra is sheer bliss.
Swan Lake tells the tragic tale of Odette and Prince Siegfried – two characters unhappily trapped in situations against their will. The love story of Odette – a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer Rothbart, and Siegfried a prince whose sensitivity is at odds with his royal and military duty – plays out at 'the lake' which is the domain of the evil Rothbart. A projected image that shimmers in the moonlight, the lake is a hypnotic place that exerts its power over Siegfried and also creates a magical albeit sinister calm as a backdrop to the unfolding tragedy.
The first act of the ballet is set in the palace gardens where preparations are taking place for the prince's birthday. Siegfried is presented with four foreign princesses – Brooke Lockett, Karen Nanasca, Heidi Martin and Benedicte Bemet – as possible fiancées but he appears disinterested. The stage is quite busy with dancing and mime, the costumes are pleasing but not thrilling, and the dancing – in spite of some quite worrying work from one of the male dancers who was clearly not having a good day – is pleasant enough although not overly engaging. The difficulty of this first act lies in the fact that ballet as a silent art form doesn't use speech to propel the action forward and without actually reading the synopsis you would have trouble knowing what is happening. The handsome Siegfried – Chengwu Guo – is introduced to us as a sensitive if somewhat troubled character and his dancing is graceful and extremely well controlled.
Act 2 commences and the arrival of the swans is heralded by large soaring wings projected onto the backdrop above the shimmering lake – the use of projection for the swan's arrival is extremely effective and with Tchaikovsky's wonderful music it creates an otherworldly and magical atmosphere. Odette (Ako Kondo) appears and the ballet is lifted from the mundane to the exquisite and with the 'pas de deux' arrives one of those moments when you could literally hear a pin drop. Guo and Kondo are such beautiful dancers – perfectly tuned into each others bodies and movements – actually more like one being than two and acutely aware of the other. The 'pas de deux' and the luscious romantic score takes you to another dimension as does the lake – a magical place where supernatural things can and do happen. Guo is a very handsome and sensitive dancer and his amazing control and technical prowess is balanced by his support for his leading lady. During the 'pas de deux' he sometimes appears to disappear and become the unseen puppeteer commanding his beautiful swan puppet. As for Odette, I can barely imagine a more suitable dancer for this role – beautiful, elegant and with the ability to mimic avian ways with complete taste and grace. I can honestly say that this dancer did not put a foot (webbed or otherwise) wrong for the whole performance and completely captured the vulnerability and regalness of the character. The 'corps de ballet' were also wonderful and the famous 'dance of the cygnets' which is always a favourite was extremely well executed.
Act 3 begins and a ball is in progress. Von Rothbart (Ben Davis) appears, picks up a violin and plays a flashy number (echoed in the orchestra by the real player) which is quite effective and evocative of violin virtuoso 'Paganini' who was suspected of being in league with the devil (another nice parallel for von Rothbart). Rothbart's daughter Odile is also present and Siegfried mistakes her for his beloved Odette – and captivated by her seductive charms he breaks his vow of fidelity to Odette. In this act, Akondo reveals the flip side of the Odette coin and portrays a fiery femme fatale with an alluring stage presence. The dancing is magnificent and the performance of 'fouettes' one after the other amazes the audience who break out in raptures once the spinning finally stops. Guo is also spectacular with his leaps and spins and his ability to land squarely after a spin with out the slightest wobble really is amazing. This act is interspersed with other dances and the Russian dance (performed by Robyn Hendricks, Lucien Xu, Shaun Andrews, Cameron Hunter and Francois-Eloi Lavignac) with cossacks in shiny and colourful costume was a definite highlight of the act.
Act 4 takes us back to the lake at night. Odette, having learnt of her love's infidelity is desolate, although she pardons him knowing that they must part forever. In desperation Siegfried drowns himself and the ballet ends with von Rothbart gathering up the prince's body from the watery grave and carrying him away. Thanks to Siegfried's sacrifice, Odette has been freed from Rothbart forever. The appearance of a gondola on the lake and the lifting of the body from the water is a touching and tasteful treatment of the the prince's death. Ben Davis as von Rothbart creates a very creepy character and his sweeping cape is reminiscent of Count Dracula.
I didn't like everything about this production although there were many highlights and the dancing is often spectacular. The set is always visually pleasing and the dancing good although the first act is lacking in excitement and somehow doesn't prepare us for what is to follow. Without a doubt, the stars of the show are the two leads and in particular the prima ballerina Ako Kondo who is an extraordinary dancer and actress. Her portrayal of the swan combined with Tchaikovsky's heartbreaking score is an extraordinarily beautiful visual and audial experience that will linger in my memory for a long time to come. Don't miss it.
The Australian Ballet presents
Music Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Choreography Stephen Baynes
Venue: Sydney Opera House | Bennelong Point, Circular Quay Sydney
Dates: 2 – 20 April 2016