Who says you can’t teach an old bird new tricks? Certainly not choreographer Graeme Murphy, who has taken the venerable “Swan Lake” and stood it on its head. The result is a gorgeous, sophisticated dance-fable that will satisfy all but the most die-hard of purists. The Australian Ballet, a well-disciplined company making a rare U.S. tour, does it proud and a big bouquet to Cal Performances for bringing this balletic bonbon our way.
Well, maybe bonbon is the wrong word. As always, the tale is more bitter than sweet. Prince Siegfried (Kevin Jackson on Oct. 17) is torn between two women: his shy, adoring bride, Odette (the exquisite Madeleine Eastow) and his mistress, Baroness von Rothbart (Lana Jones). Except, as Murphy and his concept collaborators twist it, they bear a striking resemblance to Prince Charles, Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker-Bowles. And the whole thing is capped by a Queen (Shane Carroll) who has an obvious dislike for her new daughter-in-law. Eventually, the tension of the triangle sends Odette off the deep end and she is dispatched to a mental hospital by royal decree. The rest of the story evolves from a dream that the anguished girl has in her lonely captivity.
Siegfried is as passionate with his lover as he is distant from his wife, and Jackson and Jones have some pretty steamy moments in a prelude in his bedchamber. The following wedding scene is terribly posh with guests sipping champagne, posing for paparazzi and chit-chatting, briefly interrupted by a troupe of Hungarian dancers (in Murphy’s only bow to the divertissements that decorate — and stall — the plots of Tchaikovsky’s great ballets). After trying vainly to separate her groom and his lover, Odette briefly tries flirting with the male wedding guests (shades of the historical Diana?) but then descends into madness and confusion. For a moment or two we think we have wandered into “Giselle” by mistake.
The iconic Act II, however, is as classic as you would wish, with a white-clad corps waving its wings and the choreography, especially in the dance of the Cygnets, smacking more than a little of the Petipa-Ivanov original. Against a stunning set (steeply raked platform, black waves and a silvery tree) designed by Kristian Fredrikson, who also did the opulent costumes, it is lovely to look at. Siegfried shows up for the adagio and, for a moment, it looks like marital bliss will ensue after all. But the Baroness (a double villain, named for the evil sorcerer of the original) splits them apart again. Odette awakens in the asylum, alone once more save for the attentions of a group of no-nonsense nursing nuns and a somewhat menacing doctor.
Act III, the ball scene of the original, is set at an elegant cocktail party given by the Baroness. Only, instead of the Black Swan (Odile, a scheming minion of the evil von Rothbart) coming in to seduce the prince, Odette (the White Swan), escaped from the asylum, enters to captivate the crowd, including her husband. After dancing a fantastic solo, the jealous, heartbroken Baroness calls the doctor and Odette flees into the night.
Meanwhile, back at the lake, the grieving prince seeks his beloved. She finally appears, clad in her wedding dress, which slips away to reveal a black swan costume. The protective corps enters and so are they all, all black swans. It’s a striking effect, especially as the desperate heroine sinks into the depths of the water, leaving her prince to mourn.
Murphy’s choreography is pleasing, if not spectacular, with the exception of some really ungainly lifts and too many solos of anguish for the danseur. It is executed with brio by the dancers from Down Under. Musically, neither Tchaikovsky nor the Berkeley Symphony ever sounded so good, under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon.
But it is the concept, as well as the execution that sticks with you. It may not be your mother’s “Swan Lake,” but I could have cheerfully drowned in it.