Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake (world premier)

Review as submitted to The Herald Sun 18 September 2002




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If audience reaction is anything to go by, The Australian Ballet has a hit with its new production of Swan Lake.

The creative team of choreographer Graeme Murphy, his artistic associate Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson has devised a new scenario in which enchantment is purely psychological and swan maidens are the figments of a deranged mind. The timeless concepts of doomed love and betrayal are retained but in a more contemporary context. Odette marries her prince, only to be driven insane by his on-going affair with the sensuous Baroness von Rothbart, who never lets her husband and two children cramp her sexy style. By the end of the show Odette wins her husband’s eternal love but it’s too late and she has to commit suicide by jumping in the lake.

In its own way this is just as much a fairy tale as the traditional libretto, nevertheless, it seemed to strike a chord with the audience at Tuesday’s world premier.

Murphy is a master of narrative and gives his story a fresh edge by using the original Tchaikovsky score, as recorded by Richard Bonynge, rather than the well-known Riccardo Drigo arrangement. From the first production of Swan Lake in 1877, the score has been something of a free-for-all and Murphy allows himself a few liberties for dramatic purposes. On the whole, however, there is a mesmerizing sense of coherence that makes Murphy’s production a major artistic coup.

Kristian Fredrikson’s design, with its geometry, colour and striking textural quality also contributes significantly to the appeal of this version.

Strong performances from the entire cast also helped to sell the show in a big way. The spirit of classical perfection shimmered through every move. Steven Heathcote’s Siegfried and Margaret Illmann’s baroness offered dramatic challenge while Simone Goldsmith’s Odette surprised with the intensity of her conviction.



The audience’s keen acceptance of this Swan Lake surprised me, particularly since many among last night’s crowd were of senior years and no doubt weaned on any number of “traditional” versions.

They liked the story with its one boy-two girls triangle – an equivocal male, one innocent victim and one predatory vamp. But Murphy’s choreography tells a deeper story of circumstance, delusion and unchecked passions – dangerously thrilling stuff but distilled through the safety net of art.

Just how much was added to the overall effect by the version of the score used here and by the design is impossible to measure.

The music had a bewitching quality of familiarity and surprise – ironically just like the effect of the Black Swan in the traditional versions of Act 3 except that here it’s the real thing. It raises all sorts of vexing questions about how much of the pure Tchaikovsky power has been short-circuited by the tinkering of producers and arrangers since the ink dried on the original manuscript.

There are many who regarded Anne Woolliams’ incorporation of extraneous Tchaikovsky passages into her 1977 traditional version for the company as an unforgivable faux pas. What it all really comes down to is that there is and never has been one true version of this ballet but rather that traditional versions have based themselves around the Drigo arrangement and the extant passages of Ivanov/Petipa choreography. Murphy, Vernon and Fredrikson chose wisely. And while I prefer the breathless velocity, exotic extravagance and heartfelt mundane humanity of this team’s other foray onto the sacred ground of 19th century ballet, Nutcracker, their new Swan Lake is an important contribution to the art form.

Although the work runs over two hours and is divided by two intervals, the divisions are not acknowledged as “Acts”, which is another good original feature of this production. Nevertheless, the three different parts are also distinguishable by their sets.

The lake is always present, either in full view or just beyond a foreground interior. In part 1, it is a frothy, frosty natural spectacle, in part 2 it is a pool of brooding tranquility and in part 3 a black receptacle of tragedy.

The asylum is a minimal, neatly geometric achromatic environment with a sculptural bath and exposed steel pipework – cold, intimidating and antidecorative, the epitome of latter day architectural trends. But real life is not black and white and the world of passion, as epitomized by the baroness’s ballroom, is densely textural, mysterious holding us as enchanted prisoners. This set, with its monumental scale and walls covered alternatingly in randomly bubbled silken fabric of bronze and indigo, was the only one to receive instant applause.

I particularly liked the first set with its pale colours: cool aquas and mauves for the natural lakeside setting and warm French gray, creamy whites and diaphanous pinks for the costumes.

The swans’ white costumes of short, droopingly-layered, ragged-edged soft net skirts are more evocative of a feathered creature than any I’ve seen to date.

The black lake – matt fabric dappled with reflective vinyl strips – that swallows Odette up at the end is a wonderful example of what a good designer can achieve with cloth alone. At the other end of the techno spectrum is the use of a rippled marine blue backdrop in part 2. It looked like magical water, a huge piece of glass that had been melted and reset in quivering waves. I’m guessing this was M.C. Escher’s “Rippled Surface” © 2002 Gordon Art B.V. – Baarn – Holland, acknowledged on the cast sheet.

It would have been good if the $15 printed program featured some discussion with Fredrikson about his design and some information on Murphy’s exact use of the score.

Murphy is a master of narrative and here he tells the story with economy and clarity. There is never any doubt about what is going on. That he achieves this through the language of dance makes it all the more beguiling. With only fleeting references to the Ivanov/Petipa choreography, Murphy and Vernon use the full classical capacity of the AB. Stunning extensions, beautifully placed arms, formal lifts and dazzling footwork characterize this Swan Lake. The circle is used as an infinitely adaptable, constantly recurring motif.

The action is integrated with the movement yet there are so many passages that would easily stand alone as complete dances. The duets for Siegfried and the baroness and Siegfried and Odette, Odette’s solos, the baroness’s dance of despair, the lakeside dances both at the wedding and in Odette’s deranged imaginings are all exquisitely fashioned individual entities.

The general quality of the performances last night attracted much favourable comment. Simone Goldsmith was a revelation. Although her naturally frail-looking, ultra thin frame contributed something to the overall pathos of her interpretation, it was the perfect combination of facial expression and dance movements that made her a compelling focus. The role must be emotionally draining in the extreme if it is performed with the extraordinary intensity Goldsmith found in herself. She would make a disarming Violetta/Margeurite in the Traviata/Lady of the Camellias story, and certainly more credible than the superb Sylvie Guillem was in Ashton’s effort on the same theme during The Royal Ballet’s recent tour. Guillem’s painful thinness only emphasizes the tensile steel strength of her invincible frame.

Of course, it all comes back to casting.

Margaret Illman’s baroness was a woman of strong feeling and beautiful ballet technique, sailing through and getting everything she desired – well, almost. It is at the point when Illman’s baroness snaps under Odette’s threat that she becomes most interesting as she crumples, an antithesis of her magnificent classical self.

Steven Heathcote continues shine as the company’s great dramatic dancer and here he shares the limelight so easily with his co-stars.

The only disappointment was the very limited use of veteran guest artists: Andrea Toy (the Queen), Robert Olup (Prince Consort), Colin Peasley (Lord Admiral) and Harry Haythorne (Marquis). Murphy has been a champion of the mature dance artist and it is puzzling that he should restrain himself so much here. Can we hope to see a continuation of Murphy’s exploration of life beyond the days of robust youth? The journey began with After Venice and Nutcracker is an adventure that the audience must be taken on. Please.

Nevertheless, this production brings out the very best in the entire cast and it is important to create works like this – in fact to create new works and tailor them to the artists’ special talents. It has often been said, in one way or another, that ballet is a living

art form and choreography is its lifeblood. This Swan Lake is a welcome transfusion.

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