Australian Ballet (AB) must surely be the only significant ballet company in the world with two Swan Lakes in their active repertoire (*). Strangely, the one we’ve seen before in Britain we have just been seeing again, whereas the joys of the new production, well reviewed in Australia, seems to remain under lock and key in Melbourne. The Graeme Murphy Swan Lake, made in 2002, is certainly distinctive, if it took its cues from the Prince Charles, Diana and Camilla story which was pretty hot in the media over the preceding 10 years and generated much marketing interest when it toured to the UK in 2005. But building what should be enduring work on topical news seems tricky, which is why, when AB in 2012 unveiled a new and traditional Swan Lake, by Stephen Baynes, I, for one, was not particularly surprised. But it seems that AB think of their Murphy Swan Lake as a highly distinctive calling card, if when they toured it to New York 4 years ago it got rather mixed reviews.
I recall seeing the Murphy Swan Lake during its UK premiere run in Cardiff (July 2005) and was rather taken by the lucidity of its story telling and the commitment of Australian Ballet’s dancers. But “is it a ballet that’s had its day?” was at the back of my mind as I journeyed to see it again.
The good thing about the Murphy Swan Lake is that it tells its dramatic story with clear clarity. The programme has good (and nicely short) notes on the plot but you don’t need them really. The Prince is torn between two women, marries one (Odette) but dallies with the other (Baroness von Rothbart) at the wedding festivities and the wife goes mad with the evolving pain of the other relationship and is committed to an asylum. There she has swan maiden dreams (cue flock of white swans on circular lake) before regaining the confidence to try and reclaim her husband. After a 3-way tussle, the Prince sees the light if Odette realises she will never find ease of mind and, with black swans all around, returns to the lake.
What works is the love triangle, set in Edwardian times, which is very realistic and modern in feeling – if you like Matthew Bourne blockbusters then you will likely be at home here. With hindsight, it doesn’t rely on any Charles and Diana parallels to work. The designs by Kristian Fredrikson are masterfully rich and, like Murphy, there is an eye for the dramatic flourish that really connects with an audience. The choreography is a punchy mix of ballet and contemporary and the dancers sell it with dramatic panache. I saw the second cast with Robyn Hendricks (a principal) in the lead as Odette, giving only her second performance in the role, and was impressed by the clarity of movement and her expressive acting out of a broken and unhappy woman – I truly believed her. Amy Harris (a senior artist), as the Baroness, also registered strongly for her realism, if the Prince of Rudy Hawkes (another senior artist) looked rather workmanlike, if willing. But, as with UK companies, Aussie Ballet presents a stage groaning with narrative nuance – everybody has a backstory it seems and you care about what’s happening.
If the basic plot really works, it’s the vestiges of Swan Lake – the white swan maidens in the mad scene and the lake scene at the end – which don’t seem to fit well with the new plot. They feature great dancing and the end is genuinely touching, but they don’t feel naturally part of this very human (not avian) story. Indeed it makes you think of their inclusion as rather opportunistic to help justify the use of the most popular title in ballet. But people have been playing fast and loose with Swan Lake’s music and plot for decades and I don’t think that’s about to change – there are upsides and downsides to such free tinkering. I should also say that I’m not against the reordering of the music at all (reordering from what we now think of as the ‘correct’ order) – it’s a different story using great music to good effect. I just wish the narrative was more different if anything and the faint whiff of an occasional swan out of water left us free to fully embrace the great storytelling that Murphy can and does deliver.
But things move on and this week Australian Ballet are presenting something new to the UK – their version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky. And I can’t wait to see what the always interesting Ratmansky does with Prokofiev.