For a moment last week ballet was at the top of the hashtag heap. The brand went viral, beating out the massive street protests in Hong Kong and racking up millions of hits on social media.  I am referring of course to World Ballet Day which followed five big-time, international ballet companies during a 20 hour live streaming marathon of classes, rehearsals, and interviews. The event featured the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi, National Ballet of Canada, and San Francisco Ballet. Kicking off the east to west ballet love-in was the upbeat Australian Ballet. Those who tuned in caught an engrossing studio rehearsal of Act I of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake (2002) with music by the company’s remarkable rehearsal pianist.

That rehearsal was introduced by the genial Murphy himself who spoke excitedly about preparing the company’s return to Los Angeles. He had been here in the 1970s when Australian Ballet toured as a kind of star backing company for Nureyev. His Swan Lake courses with a riveting ebb and flow of well-designed ensembles, interior dramas, and elegant staging. The dancing coalesces in an organic amalgam of adapted classicism and expressive theatricalized movement. Last night those elements, fleshed out with the richest of sets and costumes by Kristian Fredrikson, Damien Cooper’s  chiaroscuro lighting effects, and music conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, shone brightly in the first of five performances continuing through the weekend.

Act II Swan Lake Australian Ballet
Act II Swan Lake Australian Ballet

Murphy’s is a worthy version that challenges and at times overwhelms the few remaining classical, ocean-going four-act versions. Other contemporary versions often spin the tale in truncated two act productions with heavily redacted music. Australia Ballet jumps in the deep water and delivers a full throttle production that never lets up, breathing satisfying new life into the standard rote storytelling. The chief departures are Act II at the lake reimagined as a fantasy seen through the eyes of a mentally unhinged Odette, and the black swan role recast as a separate character, the manipulative Baroness von Rothbart (Lana Jones), who squanders Prince Siegfried’s affections. The suggestive love triangle is tangentially drawn from the lives of Princess Diana, Prince Charles, and Camilla Parker Bowles.

In both the primary and subsidiary roles, Murphy draws finely detailed characters. They are hardly ever simply dancers making do with steps. They feel like real people. It reinforces the notion that this ballet, while veering toward themes  familiar from “Giselle”, feels more like a psychological drama in the mold of Ibsen or Strindberg. At the center are the well-drawn shifting loyalties that eventually consume everyone. Leaving behind the coded conventions of classical dance has opened a door permitting these people to dance with a spectacular sense of urgency and purpose. Leading the way in the principal roles were Madeleine Eastoe as Odette and Kevin Jackson as Siegfried. Their virtuosity and endurance, especially in Murphy’s brilliantly complex partnering, made a lasting impression. The center piece Act II pas de deux was both beautiful and shattering. And Ms Eastoe deserves high praise for her portrayal as the broken Odette in the perfect design of the asylum scenes that bookend Act II. Also exceptional was the quartet of cygnets who delivered pristine feet and a beguiling reworking of positions in their linked arm pas de quatre. The four dancers for the Thursday evening performance included Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca, and Heidi Martin. Reiko Hombo delivered fleet, fearless, exuberance as the Young Duchess-To-Be.

Murphy’s “Swan Lake”, though it journeys wide of the traditional mark, still faithfully acknowledges its debts. Much of the familiar connective tissue remains. The Hungarian dances (usually part of the Act III diversions) show up as part of the Act I garden party. In the lake scenes, the swans preserve versions of their animalistic ticks and liquid arms. Act III sets are dressed in an oppressive gold and black gloom. The files of swans in their travelling movement betray a hint of Bayadère’s Shades. And the final triumphal music acknowledges an Odette who has clawed her way back briefly from her insanity only to disappear in a swirling vastation of water and fabric. The moment is captured with breathtaking staging. But clean storytelling wins out whatever the alterations. In the final moments, when the enormity of his self-inflicted loss comes crashing down, Siegfried is utterly stripped and shaken. The journey there has been an astonishing one.

This is a buoyant and accomplished company. Twelve years on, they own this production and make the most of what it has to offer. You will look hard and not always find this expansive a production, one so abundantly filled with dancing, adventursome staging, and which so clearly and authoritatively claims new ground. Performances continue through this Sunday (10/12). 

(The production originated with Australian Ballet in 2002 and is only performed by them. Janet Vernon and Kristian Fredrikson are also credited for the original concept. The company is directed by former Australian Ballet principal dancer David McAllister. They travel to San Francisco for performances next week.)


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