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 Nivinia 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