Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023)

Digital screening, September–October (filmed on 29 September 2023 during the Melbourne season of Swan Lake)

I am not a huge fan of this latest production of Swan Lake from the Australian Ballet—a version directed by artistic director David Hallberg but based on the 1970s production by Anne Woolliams with dramaturgy and a little extra choreography from Lucas Jervies.

On a positive note, the corps de ballet of 26 swans danced as a group with exceptional precision. Whether they were making and holding a line, a circle, a V-shape as in the opening to Act IV, or any other shape for that matter, their groupings were beautifully precise. And their dancing was in unison to the extent that, for example, they usually managed to lift their legs in arabesque to the same height as each other, and execute other steps with amazing togetherness. The four little swans—Evie Ferris, Jill Ogai, Aya Watanabe and Yuumi Yamada—stood out with regard to this unison and precision. It was pure perfection.

Then there were the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. They were exceptional in design, colour and cut. I especially admired the costumes for the character dances, and the very elegant black and white striped suit worn by von Rothbart in ACT III, befitting a Baron I thought.

But that’s about all the positivity I can muster.

I found the production quite lacking in emotional content. While in his between-acts spiel on this streaming platform Hallberg made much of the partnership between Benedicte Bemet as Odette/Odile and Joseph Caley as Prince Siegfried, and while technically they danced well both separately and together, I could not feel or see any passion, or even affection, between them. And there was certainly no changing emotion visible as the situation between them changed. Ballet is a wordless art but when there is a narrative, as there definitely is in Swan Lake, the story has to be clear and prominent enough in a physical sense for the audience to see and understand the narrative, even if, as in the case of Swan Lake, so many of us have seen it so many times that we have a clear idea already about the storyline. Clarity of narrative and the changing of emotions can be achieved by a simple movement of the head, a lift of the arm that is different from what went before, or something quite simple. But it has to be a physical change that we as the audience can notice and feel, not just a thought in the dancer’s head.

Then I was taken aback by the character dances in Act III. There were three (one each from Spain, Hungary and Italy) rather than the more usual four and they were danced largely without any of the passion that characterises national dancing. Everything seemed to be angled towards a perfect, balletic technique—mostly with the frame of the body held erect and little expression in a physical sense or even through facial expression. Character dances are full of physical expression and theatricality growing from a pride by the characters (as played by the dancers) in a particular heritage.

Perhaps my dislike of this Swan Lake reflects a remark made by Lucas Jervies when speaking to Hallberg and Livinia Nixon in the conversations between acts as part of the streaming. Jervies mentioned that Hallberg asked for the production to be ‘boiled down and refined’, and Hallberg confirmed that this was his aim. The ‘boiling down’ just took everything away. A strong (refined?) focus on technique and little else doesn’t make a theatrical production. At least not for me.

I have a subscription ticket to see this Swan Lake in Sydney towards the end of the season there. Perhaps I will feel differently then?

Michelle Potter, 2 October 2023

Featured image: A moment from Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Kate Longley

5 thoughts on “Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023)

  1. Oh thank God. I thought it was a combination of me, Guo Chengwu and Ako Kondo that made me feel the production fell flat. I was lucky enough to be in the middle of the stalls (thanks Mum) and was looking everywhere for some vestige of mime, some chemistry, some emotion…sure, the dancing was technically good, but it’s Swan Lake: I want all the feels too!

    Orchestra under Jonathan Lo sounded great. Rothbart in act III looked in the theatre to be wearing black and gold, not white? National dances very balletic, costumes of so-called princesses more folky than the peasants in act I. PDD in act IV recognisably Tchaikovsky but equally recognisably not Swan Lake. Jester no relevance as part so truncated. No Benno? Sparkly not feathery swans? Grump grump why ditch Hugh Colman’s gorgeous designs? And finally, the production had no soul.

  2. I almost began my review with something like ‘I am in the minority here …’. Then I thought why should I say something like that? But I have been staggered by other reviews I have read, including one or two from critics whose work I have previously admired. Pretty much everyone thinks this Swan Lake was a great production! Well it wasn’t, and thank you for putting your views forward.

    You mentioned a couple of things I thought about but didn’t discuss. One was Benno. Yes, where was he? Obviously he was ‘boiled down’ to the extent that he disappeared. Such a shame as, apart from anything else, he gives some reality to Siegfried. Even Princes have friends. Then there is the question of the Jester. I saw Marcus Morelli in this role and I have always enjoyed his dancing. I think he was trying to add some character to the role. There was a moment when he approached Joseph Caley as Siegfried and tried to converse with him. But Caley just stood there and didn’t react. I was a bit over Caley, and others, just standing there!

    And so on …

    I hope the Australian Ballet can get back to where it has been in the past. But at this stage I am anxious as ‘no soul’ is right.

  3. Thank you for your first impressions of the production, Michelle. I do think you may be surprised at the power of the Bemet/Caley pairing if you get to see them at the performance you will be attending. It has turned out to be a vexed question for me as to the success of this rethink/revision of the Anne Woolliams production. I believe she herself revised certain aspects of the production for a 1991 revival. And you will know my devotion to the Tom Lingwood contribution to her production from my comments to you about what I considered the disrespectful re-use of his costumes from the production for a Gideon Obarzanek work in 2012. This time around I found nothing successful in either the new settings or the new costumes. The Act 1 and Act 3 sets and costumes looked like a production of “Sleeping Beauty” with their definite hints of a late 18th Century time period. And the abstracted tree silhouettes of the lakeside scenes had none of the haunting mysteriousness which I feel should inform these scenes. However, as the really great strength of Woolliams’ original production was her work in the arrangement of the lakeside scenes, especially in having a continuously moving corps de ballet, making the most exquisite and expressive framing patterns for the central couple, after the shock of the first viewing I realised that the new scenography for the lakeside scenes enabled Woolliams’ vision to be perfectly realised. And as you comment, the work of the corps, the leadings swans and the cygnets was exemplary in it’s precision and unanimity. I liked the new choreography for the Act 1 Waltz [which Woolliams didn’t use] with it’s subtle hints of courtly steps appropriate to the time period of the setting. But the new choreography of the Fiancees’ dance in Act 3 was very muddled with the Courtiers involved and the Fiancees moving through the lines. I was glad to see Ray Powell’s national dances re-instated. Woolliam’s redid them herself in her later revision making them less classical. From the four performances I saw, the luck of the draw meant I only saw Bemet/Caley and Hendricks/Zenin. Robyn Hendricks, because of her long sinuous line, seemed to take the “imprisoned swan” route – by that I mean all her movements were swan like. When Bemet landed in Act 2 and moved forward to shake off the swan form and become a woman one really felt what was happening so that in the Act 2 Pas de Deux one got the feeling of a woman not a swan falling in love. Likewise at the end of the act when she returns to the swan form it was very clear what was happening. In fact I presume Lucas Jervies is responsible for what I found to be the very clear dramaturgy of the swan/woman/swan transformations in both the white acts, especially the clear indication that Odette is sacrificing herself in Act 4 to save Siegfried. And likewise in Act 3, the idea of Odile imitating the gestures of Odette to trick Siegfried was very clear – none of the campy, vampy carry-on one sometimes sees in Act 3. I have also to say that Bemet rose to great heights for me in the 3 performances I saw with her. Her technique seems to me to be so secure now that she can use the language of classical choreography to transmit to us the emotions of love and loss in the most direct manner. I was thrilled with her technical work and moved to tears with her emotional expression. And Caley was the most perfect partner in the way he presented and interacted with her. So for me a mixed bag : sets/costumes a failure, retention and execution of Woolliams’ genius vision of the lakeside scenes a complete success, coaching and rehearsal of principals and corps a triumph.

  4. Thanks Adrian for your response and yes, I do recall your commitment to the input of Tom Lingwood, and I respect your familiarity with the Woolliams production and your understanding of how that production appeared or was developed in the current version.

    I didn’t mention the set design for the current show in my post, but I was not for the most part entranced by it. It seemed to me to have little that was visually compelling but I did quite like the tree-scape in the lakeside sections. For me, unlike for you, there was a certain mystery there.

    Much of how I felt about what seemed to me to be a lack of connection between Bemet and Caley was, rightly or wrongly, affected by having been truly moved by Queensland Ballet’s Patricio Revé a day or two before in Rhapsody in Blue from Strictly Gershwin. He epitomised for me how the classical technique can be used in quite small but clearly meaningful ways to attract attention to an aspect of a partnership. Rhapsody in Blue doesn’t have a narrative line but Revé was just brilliant in being able to create emotion in the smallest movement – the way he stretched his hand forward invitingly to begin a supported movement, and other similar, small actions. I just saw nothing of that from the Bemet/Caley partnership. It seemed quite cold to me. I was actually sorry not to be able to be positive about Bemet to tell the truth as I have admired her performances on many an occasion.

    But thank you again for your comment. It is always good to have different thoughts about what we see. And who knows who will be cast for my next viewing.

  5. Loved the swans technically great.The narrative was a little confusing and the emotion was just not there between the lovers.Music was great.I have seen several swans and this is not my favourite.Sorry for any negative comments but several people in audience were not impressed.

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