Swan Lake. A second look

8 December 2012 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I finally got a chance to take a second look at the Australian Ballet’s new production of Swan Lake. With Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in the lead there was much to enjoy. It was a pleasure to see Gaudiello back onstage and I admired his clear reading of the role. He was especially impressive in Act II. His meeting with Odette was full of excitement, tenderness, pleasure and love, expressed not just in the face but in his movement and partnering as well. It contrasted nicely with his moody behaviour in Act I. Stojmenov responded to his attention and together they made this meeting something that almost had me on the edge of my seat with anticipation of what was to come.

Stephen Baynes’ choreography remains impressive on a second viewing. I noticed in particular this time the elegant waltz of the princesses in Act III with its lovely swirling, bending bodies. And there are moments of exquisite beauty in Act IV where circles of movement predominate. This time I did notice what happened to Siegfried. He left the stage amid a bevy of swans just in time to get ready to be fished out of the lake as Rothbart sailed by. Nothing dramatic in his exit, but then Odette’s exit didn’t have much drama to it either. I admired Juliet Burnett’s pouting princess. Being used to princesses who all act the same and smile through everything, it was a pleasure to see her bringing real character to a role.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet

The work still remains a disappointment, however. As I did during and after the first viewing, I wished that a dramaturg had been brought in. The story doesn’t quite hang together for me without the ongoing and menacing presence of von Rothbart, or at least of some kind constant figure or presence of evil throughout the acts (it doesn’t have to be an owl running around the stage with a cloak flying behind it). Although we are given flashes of lightning at various points, and projections of large flapping wings attached to a weird body and head at others, this is not the same as a continuing presence of evil. Without some kind of ongoing menace, the whole black/white, good/evil theme loses its strength. And without it, it makes nonsense of that moment at the end of Act II when Odette has to leave Siegfried, drawn away by a force more powerful than he is. What is drawing her back, automaton-like, in the Baynes production?

There was also a major problem in Act III with the set and the stage space it occupies in Sydney. Gaudiello in particular was denied the opportunity to execute his solo and his part in the coda to the fullest extent of his ability. It was cramped more than I have ever seen it on that stage with this production and Gaudiello’s dancing suffered badly through no fault of his own. I can’t see that that stage is going to get any bigger any time soon—it’s been like it is for forty years. So it seems to me that the Australian Ballet needs to commission sets that are capable of being used in Sydney without compromising any dancer’s performances.

This Swan Lake is, however, a visual treat. The corps de ballet continues to look beautifully rehearsed and their work has such clarity these days. Hugh Colman’s costumes are gorgeous. But I wish the dramatic line had more coherence.

Michelle Potter, 8 December 2012

The original Swan Lake post is at this link.


8 thoughts on “Swan Lake. A second look

  1. I saw Swan Lake the other night in Sydney also (my first time of seeing it) and have to agree with you re the lack of drama. I had read up on the plot before going, having been somewhat familiar with it as a child … the man next to me confessed during and after the ballet that he couldn’t follow the plot at all and “who was the man in the blue cloak?” !!!

    But I loved the spectacle of the swans with their and their precision, and the orchestra and concertmaster solos were very impressive. Unfortunately Kevin Jackson as Siegfried landed four jumps very clumsily the night we were there (sorry don’t know the name of that step, am fairly new to ballet).
    Very interested to read your review, thank you.

  2. Thank you for this comment and it is especially good to hear from an audience member who isn’t as familiar with the work as some. Dance needs to make its point quickly and clearly, and it certainly didn’t always happen with this Swan Lake. ‘The man in the blue cloak’ is a perfect example of it not happening!

    Kevin Jackson is usually technically very proficient. It could have been the small size of the space he had to dance in that made his landings clumsy. The sets were too big for the stage of the SOH I think. Everyone designs for Melbourne and then the sets just have to be squashed into the space available in Sydney.

    So glad you went though and thank you again for your comments.

  3. Having seen a number of shows in Melbourne and now two in Sydney(including the performance above) I can say with conviction that the best pairing, technically and artistically was Ty King-Wall and Lucinda Dunn. I actually felt Stephen Baynes did a very good job of this Swan Lake, with some absolutely beautiful choreography for both individual dancers and group work. Congratulations to the Swans! This production, some of the Onegin pairings and the Etudes performances were my highlights this year. In fact I wonder why Ty King-Wall is not a principal yet. He and Lana Jones were excellent in Onegin,his Siegfried was very maturely presented and he was technically superb in Etudes…which was an excellent choice to showcase the Australian Ballet mastery at its 50th celebration. I have really enjoyed the Aus Ballet in 2012, except for the dreadful Murphy Romeo and Juliet… I will be back for more in 2013. And a special farewell for the beautiful Rachel Rawlins, her artistry will be missed.

  4. I heartily second your congratulations to the Swans. They showed off beautifully the choreographic patterns Baynes sought to achieve. Sadly I did not catch a Dunn/King-Wall performance but others have also commented on the strength of this partnership. See the comments on the original Swan Lake post.

    As for Ty King-Wall’s potential promotion, being a principal carries with it, as we know, more than technical and artistic qualities. So I would like to share two King-Wall ‘media moments’ with you. The first was back in March when the company was in Canberra for the Telstra Ballet in the Park performance. At the pre-performance function King-Wall gave a fine spoken introduction to the company to the assembled crowd. David McAllister had earlier mentioned the ongoing sponsorship of Telstra noting that it had endured for something like 30 years (sorry I can’t remember the exact length of time). King-Wall, who followed McAllister in the proceedings, picked this up and remarked that the Telstra sponsorship was clearly strong and much-valued and that in fact it had endured for such an extended length of time that he hadn’t even been born when it began. Most people in the crowd were somewhat over 30 so his remark was greeted with much laughter!

    The second was more recent. When I was writing my story about Rachel Rawlins’ retirement I asked the company media team if I could speak to another dancer who would be able to talk about working with Rawlins, leaving the choice to them. They chose King-Wall, who has recently partnered Rawlins in several roles, and I have to say I was more than impressed with the very gracious way he dealt with my questions. The experience left me with the utmost respect for him as a person as well as a dancer. So I feel sure that if he is promoted he will bring not only the necessary technical and artistic qualities needed, but all the necessary offstage ‘extras’ that it takes as well.

    Thank you for your comments.

  5. I attended last night’s final performance of Swan Lake and experienced such a thrilling performance by Rachel Rawlins that I was doubly sad it was her farewell. Her interpretation of Odette was beautiful, especially her port de bras and the melting quality of her movement (achieved through perfect control). Odette’s love for Siegfried clearly carried across from the stage.
    The real thrill however came in the third act with the black swan pas de deux. Her Odile was seductive, playful, captivating – and it was obvious that Rachel was enjoying her performance! The audience went wild at the end of the coda, I don’t know how the dancers could hear the orchestra.
    In regards to the rest of the show, there were highs and lows but thankfully more highs. I enjoyed the first act solos and pas de trois for Benno, the Duchess and the Countess. Ako Kondo had a lovely arabesque and light jumps. Chengwu Guo impressed as always, and Brett Chynoweth stood out from the corps. I also loved the swirling patterns of the swans and excellent dancing of the corps girls.
    Unfortunately the whole production looked slightly ridiculous due to overly large sets taking up most of the stage. Also, a significant problem was incessent squeaking of shoes on the stage! It definitely ruined the mood of Act II to have the audience laugh when the lines of swans all squeaked in unison… While the entrance of von Rothbart and co. was a great piece of theatre, I deliberately ignored the fake violin playing as something so inane that it could have ruined the experience for me if I had let it. As it was, I very much enjoyed the Spanish and Russian dances.
    Overall, I have to say it was one of if not the best experience at the ballet that I have had in a while. Let’s hope for more like this…

  6. It is lovely to have thoughts from someone who witnessed Rachel Rawlins in her final performance. It is really good to know too that she received such a great reception. So thank you for your comment.

    Just one other thing, I didn’t comment in any of my posts or comments about the violin playing sequence. But, since you brought it up Sarah, I have to say why have it in there? It really does look incredibly amateur.

  7. Re the violin playing: the first time I saw it in Melbourne it was appalling and unfortunately for the Rothbart on stage (who shall remain nameless) I could actually see into the pit from where I was sitting. So I could see just how appalling it was 🙂

    By the time I got to Sydney that particular Rothbart had improved – perhaps the (un)gentle word I had with him sank in…however the others I saw were all revoltingly out of sync and I do think it was a terrible waste of the longest period Rothbart spent on stage, in fact it was excruciatingly funny rather than menacing or seductive or whatever it was supposed to be.

    I felt the female corps in Melbourne showed how long it had been since they had danced a purely classical ballet, but by Sydney they had definitely improved. Big Swans who deserved mention were Juliet Burnett, Amy Harris, Dimity Azoury, and Laura Tong.

    Ty King-Wall in my opinion has not yet been promoted principal for one big reason and that is that (apart from his Lensky) he fails to engage with the audience. A principal needs to not just dance beautifully – and Ty is one of the best men in the company – but to leave an artistic impression, which he does too rarely. When he does, it’s so wonderful you want to pummel him into trying harder to do so every time he’s on stage. Also, his partnering tends to be on the shaky side – except with the much-to-be-missed Rachel Rawlins.

    However. He’s still quite young, and clearly can do the things which in my eyes he currently lacks on a consistent basis, so I look forward to his inevitable promotion – perhaps he will be like Andrew Killian – sudden blossoming in certain areas with the title of principal.

    As Lucinda Dunn was sadly unable to dance in Sydney, I was able to see Miwako Kubota’s Odette debut and her acts II and IV were as lovely as I had thought they would be. Her act III not quite so much. I hope she gets an opportunity to do it again this year.

    Best couple: Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Best Odile: Madeleine Eastoe (minxy with Black Swan-esque eyeshadow), Lucinda Dunn. Best Odette: too hard to say. Best Odette/Odile: Rachel Rawlins, Madeleine Eastoe. Best Siegfried: Daniel Gaudiello and (dance-wise) Ty King-Wall.

    The list above comes from having seen 6 Melbourne and 5 Sydney performances, including all leading couples available.

    Benno should have had more to do. Rothbart should have been seen more (without the violin).

    Best moment overall: first performance I saw, when swan barge came on at the end of act IV, Rothbart in his prologue heroic guise bent down, and came back up with poor drowned Siegfried. Heart-stopper. Very unexpected, too, as you said, Michelle, Siegfried had just sort of disappeared into the swans and offstage.

  8. Great comments thanks Anna. It is always good to hear from those who are able to see more shows than I can.

    It’s interesting how big a following Ty King-Wall has. For a while I puzzled over why this website got so many visits from Hamilton, New Zealand, until I worked out that it was King-Wall’s home town! Patience and more work are the answer to the principal question I think.

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