State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Reviewed: September 19
For this new production of Swan Lake, David Hallberg has returned to Ann Woolliams's production, created in 1977 when she was artistic director of the company. It is a traditional four-act version, but with the first and second acts merged into one. Most of the original choreography has been retained, but refreshed with new design, for which Hallberg has collaborated with US designers Mara Blumenfeld (costumes) and Daniel Ostling (set).
The main changes are to the famous second and fourth acts. While the first and third act retain conventional built set design, for the iconic "white" acts the design is clearly driven by a more contemporary mindset, using projected light and simple, abstract forms. Linking the two sensibilities is a huge swan wing projected onto the front scrim: isolated like this it can be admired as both a beautiful natural form and also an abstract shape.
The ballet opens with a short prelude which places the story immediately in its otherworld setting, showing a group of swans pleading to be released from Rothbart's spell. (The effect is shattered somewhat by the clattering of the pointe shoes as the swans retreat into the wings.) The curtain then rises on the first act court scene, part indoor and out, with the forest suggested in the background. The action plunges without much preamble into the dancing, with a lovely waltz for the whole ensemble before moving into the traditional divertissement. The storytelling is kept to a minimum – I can't help wondering how clear the action would be to the uninitiated in the audience. However, Prince Siegfried's predicament is clear – he is drawn as a lonely character; even his usual companion, Benno, is nowhere to be seen in this version. The act finishes with the Prince's folorn, yearning solo, which takes him away from the pageantry of the court and into the forest.
For the second act the audience is transported to another realm. Gone is the realism of the court scene – instead this is a world of suggestion and imagination, where the story moves from the natural to the supernatural, perhaps into Siegfried's dreams. The forest and lake are suggested by twiggy shapes projected onto the back wall. There is nothing as obvious as a moon or glittering waves. The stage is almost bare and the lighting surprisingly bright.
The effect is to concentrate the attention on the gorgeous, ingenious choreography, emphasising the architecture of the groups of swans, the abstract patterns of the lines of bodies and arms. But it also has the effect of divorcing the dancing from its story context, making it less about the unfolding tragic human emotions than about the beautiful appearance of the stage. The act becomes more a series of beautiful exercises in symmetry and proportion than the expression of entrapment and budding love. It is superb, but not especially moving.
Similarly in the fourth act. In this version Siegfried destroys von Rothbart and in so doing releases the swans from their spell, but it is too late for the lovers. Siegfried dies and they are not united. The set design is ravishing. From the colour and movement of the third act everything turns to black and white. The back wall is almost entirely black, but with a hint of a sinister peaked shape in the murk, which could be a mountain peak, or a wizard's hat. When the curtain rises on the V of white swans arranged on the stage, the effect is breathtaking. But the emotions of the story struggle to be felt amid all this visual glory.
On opening night Benedicte Bemet was every inch the ethereal, fluttering Odette/Odile, mastering all the technical complexities of the dual role. She conveyed fragility and steel in equal measure, with perpendicular penches, rippling arms and back, expressive face and confident fouettes. As Siegfried, Joseph Caley played a solitary, rather bewildered figure, his technique neat and clean. Their Black Swan pas de deux was thrilling to watch.
Most of the performances were superlative: in particular, the popular Four Little Swans were precise and Marcus Morelli was notable in the humorous role of the Jester. Swan Lake is a ballet, however, which relies on absolute precision from the corps de ballet, and on this night unfortunately they were a bit uneven. No doubt by the end of four seasons in four Australian cities they will be razor sharp!
The luscious Tchaikovsky score was performed by Orchestra Victoria under conductor Jonathan Lo.
– KAREN VAN ULZEN
'Swan Lake' continues in Melbourne until September 30, then plays in Adelaide from October 7 to 14, Brisbane from October 24 to 28 and Sydney from December 1 to 20.