A revisionist Swan Lake for our times

The Australian Ballet at the London Coliseum
July 13, 2016

Charlotte Kasner

It is difficult to believe that it is more than a decade since this production was first shown in London. It has lost nothing in the intervening years. Indeed, if anything it has gained in subtlety, although it is odd to see Stephen Heathcote now dancing the character role of the Prince Consort instead of Siegfried.

Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is a deeply intertextual work, although to the uninitiated, it would still work as a stand-alone piece in its own right. References to Giselle are interwoven throughout: Odette has her ‘mad scene’ (several in fact), and reappears as a ghost at the feast in Act III, wreathed in her bridal weeds and cemented to the past like a forgiving Miss Havisham seeking rapprochement with her unworthy Siegfried.

There are choreographic quotations too: a Cecchetti-like rise preceding a relevé and lifts in pas de deux that suggest Odette might float upwards out of Siegfried’s grasp. It provides full tribute to the traditional Swan Lake too, everything in the storyline fitting like a hand in a glove, but this is a Freudian interpretation for the age that spawned psychoanalysis.

The Australian Ballet in Swan LakePhoto Jeff Busby
The Australian Ballet in Swan Lake
Photo Jeff Busby

Murphy has a solid grasp of narrative and does not shy away from making every detail count. He is also a masterful choreographer, creating movement leitmotifs right down to the smallest role, and sweeping, dramatic pas de deux and pas de trois (or should that be ménage a trois?) executed seamlessly by Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Dimity Azoury.

There is a sense that we are in that long, hot Edwardian summer that preceded the Great War, history providing us with a sense of foreboding from the outset. Here, Siegfried’s disastrous choice of partner may have precipitated conflagration and global conflict, hinted at in the storm in Act IV when the seemingly endless summer finally breaks. Kristian Frederikson’s filigree foliage and Escher-like ripples are as fragile and delicate as Odette’s mind and the social order it frames. The seeming solidity of the great gilded doors in the palace, echoed by the Ruritanian braid on military uniforms, remind us of the build up to conflict and that these boy soldiers, frolicking with their skittish partners in the waltzes at the weeding celebrations are fleeting joys as ephemeral as the trailing gossamer of Odette’s wedding coat.

Amber Scott as Odette in Graeme Murphy's Swan LakePhoto Jeff Busby
Amber Scott as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake
Photo Jeff Busby

Odette is in an arranged marriage, genuinely in love with her match, head full of romantic dreams. She arrives at the palace for her wedding celebrations only to discover that Siegfried is in a long-standing relationship with Baroness von Rothbart which he makes no effort to conceal. Odette is pliant and sweet but to no avail. She flings herself at every other man in the room instead and is regarded with utter opprobrium by the entire court. She tries to fling herself into the lake but is stopped and left sobbing on the ground. Eventually, she is sectioned to a private asylum catered for by nuns.

As she rocks in misery looking out of the window, she dreams of the ideal love that she had hoped for with Siegfried and the nuns’ sail-like hats transmute them into swans. The lake at the palace appears in her mind, full of birds. She is given cold baths as a cure and then, immersed in the cold water, imagines herself a swan. She flies out of the window, settles on the lake, dances with her prince again and then finds herself at the palace at a ball where Siegfried is dancing with the baroness. Wracked with remorse, Siegfried finally dances with Odette. The spurned baroness summons the doctors and guardian nuns and in despair at being captured again, Odette flees the palace.

Adam Bull as Siegfried and Amber Scott as Odette in Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake Photo Jeff Busby
Adam Bull as Siegfried and Amber Scott as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake Photo Jeff Busby

Siegfried pursues her to the lake in the woods where they dance the pas de deux that they should have at their wedding, but Odette slips out of his grasp. He is left holding her dress; she has become a black swan, her entourage of white swans also turned to inky hues. They surround Siegfried like malevolent feathered leaves whipped into a whirlwind by the encroaching storm, running this way and that, drawing Odette into their vortex until Siegfried can no longer distinguish her. They head inexorably for the lake where they all disappear beneath the tempest.

Tiny details run like threads throughout the narrative. Siegfried holds the tail of Odette’s sumptuous wedding gown in their first, indifferent dance. Soon he will grasp it in passion, but, no matter how strong his grip, it will fall limply in his arms as Odette sweeps towards her watery grave. Girls skip skittishly like spooky fillies as they dance with their beaus at the wedding but then transform into wild birds, their skittishness outlining their feral nature.

Murphy makes the already tricky pas de quatre for the cygnets even harder with fiendish ports de bras and spiky jumps interspersed with the steps that we know so well. The big swans hint at familiar pas but make it their own. Odette executes the familiar sissones but then slides into something altogether more dangerous as Petipa and Ivanov transmute into this modern cautionary tale.

Liberties are taken with the score, but then they always have been. Key progressions are maintained with little to jar the ear, although some of the articulation from the brass was a little crude at times and the bassoonist had to recover from a minor meltdown at the outset. The challenging top notes for solo violin were not the purest, but on the whole, the orchestra rose to the occasion. Less forgivable were some of the funereal tempi which over egged the pudding and slid from elegiac into soporific.

This is a Swan Lake that is deeply reverential towards its inheritance and very much of our times although it evokes a fast-receding former era. Tchaikovsky would not recognise the ballet that he knew from any current production but in this, he would surely have been proud and awed.