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Australian Ballet shines in Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake

by Joanna G. Harris
October 16, 2014
Zellerbach Hall
Bancroft Way at Telegraph
(2430 Bancroft Ave.)
Berkeley, CA 94704
510.642.9988
Joanna G. Harris
Author, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1916-1965. Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. Contributor to reviews on culturevulture.net
The Australian Ballet brought a new dimension to the ballet classic Swan Lake. Unlike the familiar 120-year-old Petipa/Ivanov version set to the music of Tchaikovsky, choreographer Graeme Murphy's version came with a bold new narrative. One in which the choreography was inventive and dramatic, the décor intriguing and unusual and the dancing, superb.

The ballet's plot presented a triangular love story between Odette (White Swan), Prince Siegfried and the usually evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart. In this production, Von Rothbart is a Baroness. Any resemblance between these characters and the famous royals Diana, Charles and Camilla is up for conjecture. Most people buy it.

There is precedent for "new takes" on the Swan Lake legend. In 1995, the English choreographer Matthew Bourne produced an all-male Swan Lake production. The swans were male and agressive: the main characters clearly Diana and Charles. Balanchine, the NYC Ballet master, produced a one-act version with black swans as the corps. There are many other treatments, on film, video, available from Youtube and in video games!

The masterful treatment given by the Australian Ballet succeeded not only due to the complexity given to the scenes by choreographer Graeme Murphy, but most of all by the excellent dramatic ability of the cast, which, for the Thursday October 16 performance, consisted of Amber Scott as Odette, Adam Bull as Siegfried and Lana Jones as the Baroness.

Scott is to be highly commended for all four acts of dramatic action. In Act I she is the betrayed bride, her bridegroom more attentive to the Baroness' elegant behavior than to hers, which is meek and insecure. She rose to her performance height when she struck out against them, throwing herself into the arms of the male guests. The transformation from the withdrawn, shamed maiden to one of vengeful fury was demonstrated by leaps, turns and brazen lunges. It was remarkable and most exciting.

Bull as the "Charles" character, executed a long, lyrical solo; a lament for the situation and his inability to deal with it. His slow developpés (leg extensions starting from the hip and knee) become backward turns and his movement patterns across the stage thoroughly transmit his confused state. His upper body and arm gestures completed the mood. Meanwhile, Jones as the Baroness was admirable as the seductive, sophisticated royal.

She invaded the Prince's space, capturing him completely. The consequence of the rivalry and Odette's furious outburst was Odette being sent to an asylum.

Murphy provided delightful entertainment around and alongside this main drama. There was a Hungarian dance troupe that entertained, male guests who provided acrobatic feats and children who flew kites. All this substituted for what was usually seen in the third act of a traditional production of Swan Lake. This production brought the festivities to Act I.

Odette's delusion brought forth her swan self in Act II and we were transported to a set with an oval disc on which the swans reclined. The more expected variations proceeded, including the delightful "little swans" quartet, marked by some inventive arm twists. By act's end, Siegfried was ensnared by the transcendent figure of his bride as swan.

Act III, usually set at court, took place as the Baroness' fete, during which her romantic conquest of the Prince was complete. But Odette entered, subdued, beautiful in white (echoing the white swan image) and was able to woo and win him away. Throughout this scene, the choreography for the trio was brilliantly shaped, the figures weaved in and out of one another. But the Baroness, danced a long dramatic solo, alas, using a series of ineffective arm gestures and proud body postures, had her way and once again. Odette was carried off by nurses (sisters) in strange hats.

But the tale must have its lovers' ending. Siegfried returned to the lake, seeking Odette again among the swans (now costumed in blue-black tutus) and vowed eternal love (two fingers in the air) as she disappeared into the lake. We assume then the Prince returned to the Baroness.

Murphy is to be congratulated by holding this adaptation together through four acts, with several complex scene and costume changes.

The original Tchaikovsky score has been transposed and rearranged to make this plot possible. Music experts will complain, but it worked dramatically with the exceptionally fine dance skills shown by the whole company, especially the soloists.

Credit must be given to the Berkeley Symphony under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon; set and costume designer Kristian Fredrikson and lighting designer Damien Cooper.
Australian's Ballet Amber Scott and Adam Bull amid the swans in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake.'

Australian's Ballet Amber Scott and Adam Bull amid the swans in Graeme Murphy's "Swan Lake."

Photo © & courtesy of Jeff Busby

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