Maybe you are one of those folks who looked at the advertisements for the Australian Ballet's “Swan Lake” and said, “I don’t need to see another ‘Swan Lake’ by a company I’ve never even heard of … why I’ve even seen both the all-male Matthew Bourne and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo’s casts of ‘Swan Lake’ a couple of times and can’t count the number of straightforward versions.” I feel your pain. My husband definitely felt that way and I was sympathetic to him, almost deciding to stay home to try to get through two more episodes of “Breaking Bad.” OK, so we are behind the times.
That was then and now is now. While we are converts to this Aussie import, I think I must put this up front: if you are a died-in-the-wool classicist, you probably will not be. Though the technique is flawless, Graeme Murphy’s choreography and Kristian Fredrikson’s set and costume design are not closely derived from the original by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Ballet critics of greater stature than I have been more pointed than the dancers’ toes in their criticism of this crowd-pleasing production.
There are nods to the classic, like the 18 or so fouetté turns by the gifted Madeleine Eastoe (Odette) in Act I as she realizes Prince Siegfried’s duplicity, and the graceful use of arms to suggest swan-isms. Murphy is more acutely aware and interested in the graphic possibilities of dancer’s forms and the importance of precise execution than most choreographers. It is rare to see a company so flawlessly rehearsed. The program lists character names from the original (Odette, Prince Siegfried, Baroness Von Rothbart). Advance press notices have urged us to think Diana, Charles, and (a minor chord plus a low drum roll please) Camilla. This filter seems to add little to audience appreciation. A more interesting variation on the story is the framing of the swans-at-the-lake scenes as being psychotic fantasy. In these, Odette is tortured to madness by her realization that the Baroness is a serious contender for Siegfried’s attention. Eastoe and Kevin Jackson possess acting chops as well as dancing skill. I have never been fond of dance as a complicated story telling vehicle. Passion, tragedy, joy … these emotions ballet does well. Complex story lines, not so much. The Australian Ballet features a much higher level of acting ability than generally associated with ballet, so the story feels a little less forced.
Perhaps there are two kinds of people in this world: modernists and purists. In the end, whether or not to see this talented troupe will depend upon which team you see yourself cheering. I come down squarely with the modernists when the product is this polished and entertaining. The first-night audience applauded my team loudly.