‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet

18 September 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Stephen Baynes wanted his new Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet to reflect, as he put it in his notes, the ‘deeply Romantic aesthetic’ of Tchaikovsky’s score. A singularly musical choreographer, Baynes has succeeded in creating some absorbing, and often romantic in the wider sense of that word, choreographic moments. They come in particular in Act I with Baynes’ overall treatment of this act; in his newly conceived opening section of Act II when Siegfried first encounters Odette; and in an inserted pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried in Act IV.

In Act I Baynes’ choreography is beautifully paced. It fills out every note of the music, brings a real freshness to the dances and makes this opening act full of human interest. Ty King-Wall, Lana Jones and Dana Stephensen as Benno, the Countess and the Duchess respectively danced a thrilling pas de trois (or was it a pas de cinq since two other men joined King-Wall at one stage?). The meeting between Siegfried and Odette was a meeting between two human beings rather than a prince and a frightened swan protecting her brood and the choreography sank and rose in sighing movements. The inserted pas de deux too was Baynes at his best and is just what the last act needs, a final intimate encounter between Odette and Siegfried.

There was a new energy in the corps de ballet too. Perhaps it is a new production that has generated a precision in the work of the corps that I haven’t seen recently? Perhaps it is that the company has a new ballet mistress and repetiteur in Eve Lawson? Whatever the reason, it is a treat to see the dancers moving together so well.

(l-r) Reiko Hombo, Jessica Fyfe, Eloise Fryer and Jade Wood in 'Swan Lake', 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby(l–r) Reiko Hombo, Jessica Fyfe, Eloise Fryer and Jade Wood in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby

Most of Act II, however, is classical (in the Ivanov manner) as Baynes has kept a lot of the choreography from older productions so as to keep this famous white act recognisably traditional. Amber Scott as Odette seems on the surface to be perfectly suited to the role. Her body is proportioned in true classical ballerina style and her technique is clean and centred. But Act II seemed to me to exude a particular coldness. I’m not sure whether the lack of passion was a result of Baynes and Ivanov (or ‘after’ Ivanov) being mixed together, or whether Scott and her Siegfried, Adam Bull, just weren’t reacting to each other in an emotional sense. There was just one moment in the pas de deux when Scott moved from supported arabesque to attitude and her foot seemed to caress Bull’s back as the leg bent into attitude and wrapped around Bull. But it was gone in a flash and it was the only time I thought there was an emotional connection between them. There were, however, lovely performances from the four little swans and from the leading swans, danced by Juliet Burnett and Amy Harris.

Act III had a little more emotional power and Bull finally seemed to overcome his depression, which admittedly was what we were intended to see as his mood, as he declared his love for Odile. Rothbart, played by Brett Simon sporting carrot-coloured hair, was a surprise arriving as he did with a retinue of Spanish dancers, and a Russian dancer and four Cossacks. His personality was further established as he sat on the throne next to the Queen (Lisa Bolte), engaging her in conversation. But again the recognisable pas de deux and variations from what we know as the traditional version seemed to me to intrude.

There is much else to say about this new production—the development of the role of Benno and others in Act I; the importance of Siegfried; the designs; the projections of a swan/menacing figure (Rothbart?); the funeral with which the work begins and much more, which I hope to consider in future posts. I wondered whether the work would have benefitted from having a dramaturge work with Baynes and designer Hugh Colman as there were times when I wondered who was who and what was happening—Rothbart’s lifting of a limp Siegfried from the lake as, in the final moments, Rothbart sailed by standing resplendent in a mechanical swan was a surprise as there was no previous indication that I saw that Siegfried had thrown himself in the lake. But it needs more than one viewing to be able to give an informed account and in depth critical analysis. At the moment I feel that leaving some traditional choreography was a mistake and that this Swan Lake would have worked better for me had it all been Baynes.

Michelle Potter, 20 September 2012

UPDATE: Swan Lake: a second look is at this link.

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13 thoughts on “‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet

  1. The word that sprang immediately to my mind at interval was refreshing. I was amazed at how cleanlined, for a Swan Lake production, everything was : settings, costumes, choreography. As you say Michelle, there is so much to think about and one viewing is not going to yield all the secrets this production holds. I was thrilled with the treatment of the lakeside acts. Gone was the usual feathery, downy [sometimes droopy] atmosphere and in it’s place a crisp, crystalline air which placed these scenes well within cooee of the Kingdom of the Shades. The short tutus, the diadems, the drop earrings, the makeup [visible in Michelle’s photo] all helped to take things out of the “sad” realm of enchanted maidens and dying swans and place it in a bracing classical dancing space. The absence of both Rothbart and the traditional mime in these scenes seems to downplay Odette’s tragedy and makes them appear to be a projection of Siegfried’s Romantic angst. And this approach would seem to me to embody a key Baynes theme. In the past I have found Baynes’s approach to things a little too lowkey and introspective for my taste so I am amazed that I was so moved by this production.

    I am afraid I didn’t register properly who it was standing on the prow of the funeral barge at the start [when Siegfried is remembering his father’s funeral]. Was it Rothbart who claims Siegfried himself at the finale ? Anyway I am looking forward to unravelling more details with subsequent viewings. I think this year’s experience with Onegin helped both Scott and Bull work on a tremendous partnership. Admittedly I saw them from A row stalls, but I didn’t sense the coldness in their relationship that Michelle did. They were certainly making eye contact. Perhaps the lighting did not seem to be as soft and blue as usual and was more designed to sculpt the clean lines of the dancing shapes rather than lull us into an identification with their supposed tragedy.

  2. On the subject of the image I used, kindly supplied by the Australian Ballet, I am quite taken aback every time I look at Eloise Fryer. Pretty much everything about her in that image says ‘I am a dancer’. The lift of her chest and the carriage of her head are just stunning.

    I suspect it was Rothbart in the funeral barge and that would make the ending a rounding off. But the Prologue was all over so quickly and on a first viewing it was not easy to register what was happening. I also kept turning my gaze to Siegfried to see how he was handling the situation so I missed bits of the procession of the barge.

    I was back several rows on Tuesday and I have to say that Scott and Bull didn’t appear to be making any connection from where I was sitting. Others were projecting back to row ‘S’ so I think it’s something Scott and Bull need to work on.

    Thanks for your comment Adrian and, as it is unlikely I will see the show again before Sydney, I’ll look forward to any other comments you care to post as the Melbourne season progresses.

  3. A second viewing [this time from the circle and with the Eastoe/Jackson pairing] while not really tying up the Rothbart plot strands did reveal what a tremendous achievement Baynes has made in his symphonic approach to the white acts. Rather than indulging the emotions usually brought out in these acts he has worked using the slow tempi and a very Russian look to the arched backs and bent legs to produce abstract classical patterns of very great beauty. The white swan pdd seemed to be Siegfried partnering Odette as if she was his ideal of abstract classical beauty [as she indeed was in the person of Amber Scott and Madeleine Eastoe] rather than his human love. As on opening night I again sensed a kinship with all the other great abstract vision scenes. The introductory dance of the swans in Act 4 was truly mesmerising. The slow tempi allied with the very musical choreography resulted in the entire house seeming to hold it’s breath until the final 2 loud chords and pose. This refined approach to the score and choreography for these 2 white acts may be what is leading to people’s feeling the relationship between Siegfried and Odette to be somewhat remote.

    A second viewing of Act 1 made me miss, a little, the normal “presentational” approach to the pas de trois. By making the dancers characters in the story and presenting the various sections in a more informal way something of the usual brilliance was lost here. And the longish female costumes didn’t really highlight some of the brilliant footwork. But the Spanish and Russian dances in Act 3 really worked for me. Baynes’s musicality gave these a very fresh look.

    Once again I was very moved by the ending, not really from the usual emotions generated by a Swan Lake performance, but rather from a sense of the impermanence and impossibility of holding onto beauty. Rather like what I feel coming to the end of a performance of one of the great Balanchine works like Ballet Imperial or Theme And Variations. But of course there is always another performance.

  4. I quite liked the Colman approach to costuming Act I. I thought the women’s long skirts, cut so as to move easily, and the individual bodices made a real statement. I am over the costuming that we have long been used to where everyone other than the principals wears the same dress and then they all go round remarking (as it were) on what the other is wearing! I didn’t feel the pas de trois suffered at all from the costumes. For me the main issue with the pas de trois concerned the characters. I mean who is the Countess and who is the Duchess? We are not given any background to their roles really so to call one a Countess and the other a Duchess seems meaningless to me.

    But, Adrian, I am envious of your second viewing as I am sure this ballet is one that we need to see again and again in order for it to make sense. And I appreciate your comments on Baynes’ approach.

  5. Performance highlights of a second viewing of the Jackson/Eastoe partnership [Sat eve, from the stalls] were two really superb variations : his very fluid, refined performance of the melancholy Act 1 solo and her impeccable, scintillating Black Swan solo. Once again [as with Scott/Bull] I felt the Onegin experience had helped the dancers especially him with his remorse and despair in Act 4. Despite his genial, dreamy stage presence Jackson can really plumb emotional depths.

    Other points I noted : Michelle is right about not noticing exactly how Siegfried ends up in the lake. At various points in the massed movements of Act 4 I am reminded quite strongly of the Wilis in Giselle Act 2 and, after my last viewing, I finally came to think that Siegfried disappears into the lake with the departing swans [somewhat akin to Hilarion’s fate]. And yes, while the Countess and Duchess create some interest in Act 1 there is really no pay off later for their frivolous and hurtful [towards the nurse] behaviour. In fact the characters really seem to have strayed in from the Hunting scene in Sleeping Beauty.

    Jackson and Eastoe have pulled everything in this production together for me. I still think it’s a rarefied and sophisticated approach from Baynes overall. It is not a production that “dots its i’s and crosses its t’s”. And the audience needs to think and participate. But all the essential elements have been carefully laid in.

  6. I guess it goes to show how important it is to nurture partnerships. Eastoe and Jackson have been working together for a while now and in a variety of different ballets.

    I didn’t mention earlier the nurse and her husband and the hurt they are subjected to in the narrative line, but I thought Terese Power and Colin Peasley gave excellent portrayals of these two characters. Their experience showed and what they were meant to be conveying was quite clear.

    Adrian is right that the audience needs to think and participate, which is as it should be. But I also think the company needs to grow into this production and I still suspect a dramaturge would have helped.

  7. One highlight for me of the performance of Swan Lake on Tuesday evening was a superb Benno from Andrew Wright. His elegant carriage and aristocatic demeanor, as well as his sure dancing, gave great pleasure. His Duchess/Countess partners were Amy Harris [nicely played and danced] and Juliet Burnett [who didn’t seem happy or quite on top of the dancing]. Baynes has really made a success of the Act 1 waltz. It appears to be done complete with all musical repeats intact. Generally I find, even with cuts, this number wears out it’s welcome long before the final chord. However with Baynes’s cunning construction we don’t get repetitive corps work but nicely varied entries for Siegfried/Benno and Duchess/Countess alternating with musically fluid and very varied corps work.

    However what set this performance above the others I have seen so far was Lucinda Dunn’s Black Swan. I know it’s a cliche but she really was electrifying : everything we hope a traditional Black Swan will be. From her entrance down those steps [ I bet our ballerinas are glad when that descent is over] the evening was well and truly galvanised resulting in a spectacular Act 3 [she launced into the solo with an almost unbalancing force, her fouettes were single with minimal forward travel and thrillingly spot on with the beat of the music] and a very passionate and moving Act 4. And her Siegfried was not lost in all this. Ty King-Wall seemed a lot less morose and melancholic than Bull and Jackson in Act 1 so the low key nature of previous Act One’s was not so evident. And he seemed to me to be technically the cleanest exponent of Siegfried that I have yet seen. Act 2 was most interesting. In the very first encounter between Siegfried and Odette, in the part of the music where she normally retreats with scared swan movements Dunn held her ground with a proudly upraised arm. I hadn’t noticed this moment quite as strongly before. However Dunn seemed to take Act 2 even more slowly than the other Odettes and for me this didn’t work. She was balancing and posing at the expense of the musical phrasing and flow. One thing I did like very much was her restrained back and forward bends. No sweeping the floor with her hands !

    I looked very carefully again to see how we are meant to think Siegfried ends up in the lake. My Wili comparison is still in my mind as, at the point in Act 4 when it’s the time for Odette to leave, the swans start to do Rothbart’s bidding and come between Siegfried and Odette with a couple of the front swans seeming to lean forward to peck at Siegfried. And I think the colour of Rothbarts cloak [one side a light blue the other a dark blue] has something to do with things. Great care is taken in Act 1 to show us Siegfried in his blue cape. Although I still haven’t been able to follow the line from Rothbart on father’s funeral barge to Rothbart in Ballroom scene to Rothbart taking Siegfried away on funeral barge.

  8. The 12th performance, on September 28, was the Lana Jones/Andrew Killian pairing with Chengwu Guo as Benno and Reiko Hombo/Ako Kondo playing the Duchess/Countess roles. While Lana Jones is certainly one of the company’s finest dancers and brought strength to everything (including great balances and turns) I think it will take a bit of time for her to grow into the Odette/Odile roles. More facial expressiveness will, I am sure, come. And while I have always enjoyed Andrew KIllian’s work in extrovert roles, his SIegfried seemed at a bit of a loss especially in Act 1 where there is a fair bit of acting and interplay required. Capturing the melancholy without seeming inexpressive seemed very hard for him. Once again time and more performances will I think sort this out.

    At this performance the leading swans were Dimity Azoury and Laura Tong and for the first time during this run I got the usual excitement I recall from these character’s dancing. The unison strong high jumps, the balancing of the stage space between the 2 dancers and the musicality were very pleasing.

    After a number of performances seen quite closely together I am still excited by this production. I think Act 4 is a masterpiece of construction and choreography and Act 2 is not far behind. Both Act 1 and Act 3 are full of interesting things choreographically and dramatically. And I am sure the dancers will find their way more deeply into the expressive possibilities of the leading roles with more performances under their belt.

    I miss not seeing Rachel Rawlins assume the leading role in Melbourne (she was not appearing during this season). I hope Sydney gets a chance to see her.

  9. Having just seen the Anthony Dowell production of Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet (which I have to admit I loved when we saw it in Australia in 2002), I think Adrian may well be right: the Baynes/Colman Act IV is probably a remarkable contribution. The Royal’s Act IV (despite its comforting ending) is looking very tired, as indeed is the whole production. I am looking forward to seeing the Baynes/Colman production in Sydney as one viewing is definitely not enough to make a judgment and I am still confused by the role of Rothbart.

    A post on the Royal’s production will follow when I have gathered my thoughts a little.

  10. I have a perhaps misguided attraction to the ambulatory Russian ballet companies which have been making their way to Australia in recent years. I have caught all of the ones that have performed in or around Melbourne. A current one made 2 appearances this past week at The Clocktower Centre in Moonee Ponds. They performed Swan Lake. Normally I would not bring this up in polite company but there were a couple of striking things about the production in light of the recent Baynes version. In Act 1 there were 2 leading female dancers [pink costumes and tiaras] who spent a lot of time dancing with the Prince. While there was none of the petty baiting etc of the Baynes version they did fulfill roughly the same function. They were on pointe and glamourously dressed. The rest of the corps were in heeled shoes. The Prince performed in the pas de trois but not with the 2 princesses. Another pair of soloists arrived for this. The music used for the Prince’s solo in Act 1 and for an interpolated pas de deux in Act 4 was the same as that used for the 2 corresponding numbers in the Baynes version.

    Rothbart was in his customary position in Act 2 and Act 4 and dramatically things were very much as usual with his defeat at Siegfried’s hands and the release of Odette and the swans from his spell.

    But a major difference was the incredible overuse of the flapping arms and fluttering hands in the white acts of this Russian version. The Baynes version stood out again in my mind for it’s refined simplicity and musicality in these 2 Acts.

    The leading ballerina had that wonderful Russian attack and obvious delight in being on stage and the centre of attention. Her Black Swan was directed equally at Siegfried and the audience. Quite outrageous but equally quite exciting. It’s an old fashioned approach but I sometimes wish our ballerinas would just take command of the stage and convince us that being the centre of attention is the natural state of things for them.

  11. I remember talking to Hugh Colman as he was in the early stages of designing the swan costumes and he was adamant that there would be no feathers! I suspect that Stephen Baynes was not all that keen on ‘flapping arms and fluttering hands’ and that together Baynes and Colman wan’t something much more human.

    I agree with you about attack. What will we see from the Bolshoi in this regard next year?

  12. I wonder if the Australian Ballet has considered having Gillian Murphy guest with them? It would be interesting to see her in that context. I have never had the luck to see her in Swan Lake but I recall an amazing production of La Bayadere with ABT in which she danced Gamzatti to Diana Vishneva’s Nikiya and Ethan Stiefel’s Solor. Spectacular! I have also admired her in other more contemporary roles with ABT.

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