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The Australian Ballet

'Swan Lake'

Princess Diana by the Lakeside

by Cassandra

July 20, 2005 -- London Coliseum, London

So what is your attitude to "Swan Lake"? Do you regard it as sacrosanct or is its delectable score up for grabs by any choreographer attracted by it? Personally, I see it as something of an old warhorse, all too frequently performed by dancers that are apparently on automatic pilot with Odette/Odile’s caring not a whit about any deeper meaning the role might have but instead using it as an excuse to display ever exaggerated poses and their grotesquely high extensions. Mats Ek once wisely observed that there were only two ways of presenting "Swan Lake": either preserve the work in its traditional form without any new fangled embellishments or totally disregard it by starting again from scratch. The Australian Ballet has decided on the latter course.

To all intents and purposes this “Swan Lake” is totally new with a different though not entirely dissimilar storyline. It is however inspired by the original, and I use the word inspired in its most noble sense as choreographer Graeame Murphy has adapted some of the familiar Ivanov choreography in the lake scenes in ways reminiscent of a composer writing variations on an original theme. And, in doing so he has created choreography every bit as memorable as that of Ivanov’s.

The plot is straight forward enough: Prince Siegfried marries a sensitive young girl, Odette, who is put into a lakeside asylum after a hysterical reaction to her new husband’s blatant affair with a married woman. Her escape is to a dream world peopled with swan maidens and where her husband loves her. Eventually she recovers sufficiently to be allowed out of the sanatorium and with a newly acquired sense of self-confidence she attempts to reclaim Siegfried’s affection. She succeeds only too well, causing her rival to summon Odette’s psychiatrist to remove her back to the asylum. Odette flees and is pursued by Siegfried back to the lake, but after an ecstatic reunion, Odette realizes her only escape from her troubled existence is suicide. She throws herself into the lake leaving her husband alone to ponder on his actions and come to terms with his loss.

This is, of course, very close to the traditional "Swan Lake" where Siegfried is blinded by lust and forgetful of his earlier vow, but it also calls to mind that other ballet heroine, Giselle, who loses her mind when her lover’s unfaithfulness is revealed to her. For a British audience it's hard not to start thinking of the unhappy fate of Princess Diana, who entered a sham marriage identical to the one depicted here; there is also, nearer to home for Australians, the case of sad Princess Masako of Japan, suffering from mental illness due to the stifling influences of a reactionary court. Monarchies may be an anachronism in the 21st century, but they still claim vulnerable female victims as they have throughout history.

Graeme Murphy tells his story well, opening with a prologue showing the royal bridegroom (Stephen Heathcote) cavorting with his mistress, Baroness von Rothbart (Lynette Wills) on the very eve of his wedding. The opening scene is set at the wedding reception for the royal couple in a lakeside garden where Siegfried presents tiny, delicate Odette (Madeleine Eastoe) to the assembled guests. Odette is sensitive to the artificial atmosphere and clearly hurt when criticised by the cold overbearing queen. Baroness Rothbart enters, the very picture of respectability with her cuckolded husband and two cute children in tow, and before long it becomes plain that she isn’t just a platonic friend of the prince and Odette reacts with despair.

Murphy’s use of the music here is perfect, adapting the familiar pas de trois to a danced ménage a trois where we see that of the three locked into the marriage, it will be Odette who misses out. Perhaps a visual reference to those sex surveys that tell us that after physical attractiveness it is sexual skill that most attracts a man to a woman, and Baroness von R. appears to possess everything that Odette lacks in that respect. Rejected on her wedding day, distraught Odette goes berserk, literally flinging herself frantically at the male guests much to the embarrassment of the assembled company. The men in white coats are swiftly summoned (or in this case nuns in white habits and overlarge headdresses) and together with a psychiatrist, Odette is gently led away leaving the coast clear for Siegfried’s scheming mistress.

In the second act, Odette sits wistfully in front of her window looking out onto the lake. She is roughly forced into a bath to undergo some kind of water therapy before resuming her seat by the window. As she gazes out, the walls dissolve and she enters the world of the swan maidens dancing in the moonlight. This second act comes closest to Ivanov’s original with the swans arranged in original groupings of profound beauty as the backdrop to Odette’s romantic pas de deux with her erring but still beloved husband. One marvellous joke: Murphy retains the dance of the four swans almost intact, almost but not quite, as he introduces amusing little variations that could fool all but the most experienced "Swan Lake" watchers. The dream ends and Odette is back at her window realizing it was all just a fantasy.

The prince is holding a soiree with his male cronies in the third act; they are joined by their posh totty girl friends, and, inevitably, the Baroness. Confident in her unshakeable hold over Siegfried, the guests are cynically accepting of her position. To the music that normally signals the entry of the Black Swan, Odette appears, beautiful and self-assured. As she dances, the prince falls under her spell to the fury of the Baroness who summons Odette’s keepers from the asylum. Odette runs off with Siegfried in hot pursuit as von Rothbart realizes her hold over the prince is finally broken. Back at the lakeside, Odette and Siegfried dance a final pas de deux tinged with the sadness of parting and framed by the grieving swans that she has come to identify with. Unable to cope with her emotions, Odette throws herself into the lake to condemn Siegfried to a future life of loneliness.

There is so much to admire in this production: sets and costumes by Kristian Fredrikson are superb, the most attractive I’ve seen in the last couple of years and the lighting design by Damien Cooper adds to the sense of mystery in the lakeside scenes, creating a romantic setting of soft dappled moonlight that suits the work perfectly. The use of the music has, I’m told, upset a lot of people as they can’t come to terms with Tchaikovsky’s music played out of sequence. For me, though, any misgivings I might have had were negated by the beautiful playing by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, who adhered to the tempi pretty much in its original form. What a pleasure it was to listen to that wonderful score without the long drawn out passages demanded by present day ballerinas unable to dance except to music mutilated to fit their personal (and usually unlovely) style of movement.

I’ve been watching the Australian Ballet since I first saw them in a Nureyev version of "Raymonda" in 1965, but sadly their London visits have become fewer and farther between. On this showing, they are in very good shape with exemplary performances at all levels, but in an outstanding cast it will be Madeleine Eastoe’s tragic, porcelain princess that will live in my memory the longest. This was without doubt the finest work to new classical choreography I have seen in a very long time.

Edited by Staff.


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