Swan Lake is without doubt the pinnacle of classical ballet, a work of such staggering beauty and power, it functions as the art form’s creation myth.
It was literally Australian Ballet’s genesis story, the first production they mounted back in 1962. Notable past productions for the company include Graeme Murphy’s 2002 Charles, Di and Camilla love triangle reimagining, and Anne Woolliams’ highly classicist production during her brief tenure as artistic director back in 1977. It’s Woolliams’ interpretation of Marius Petipa’s choreography that the current artistic director, David Hallberg, remounts here, albeit with new sets and costumes. The production is deeply rooted in the past, but in other ways it represents a way forward.
Like all myth, the story of Swan Lake feels familiar in a primal, generative sense – like a fairytale faintly remembered. It may have its roots in Russian or Germanic folktale, but the central transformation also recalls Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Prince Siegfried (Joseph Caley) is under pressure to marry one of three foreign princesses, but on a hunting expedition he comes across an ethereal swan who, to his astonishment, transforms into a young maiden, Odette (Benedicte Bemet).
Siegfried naturally falls instantly in love with Odette, but when he returns to his world of protocols and arranged marriages, she must be left behind – he has a bride to pick. But the ceremony is interrupted by the sorcerer Von Rothbart (Jarryd Madden), the very figure who has cursed Odette to eternal otherness. He introduces Siegfried to his darkly sensual daughter Odile (also danced by Bemet, in the work’s crucial dichotomy), and a fateful case of mistaken identity occurs. Siegfried chooses Odile, only to discover his error when Odette appears heartbroken through the window.
The final act, back at the lake, is the most contested. There are so many alternate endings to the ballet, it feels as though the work’s ambivalences overwhelm attempts to reach any settled conclusion. Tragic resolutions, where Odette sacrifices herself to save Siegfried or he sacrifices himself to save her, are most popular, but there are others where the lovers are reunited and Von Rothbart is destroyed. Woolliams’s ending conforms to the tragic mode, dramatic and dark; it has a swirling, maddening inevitability to it, a tidal pull into cataclysm. And then stillness.
Swan Lake shimmers with meaning while resisting interpretation, which is precisely why it remains so powerful. The lake is a mirror, and Odette/Odile dances on its surface in a Jungian oscillation between the self and the shadow. But Von Rothbart is also Siegfried’s shadow, and the swans themselves feel like wildness contained, an aspect of the society that must be ostracised and ignored lest it threaten the social order. It is a world of oppositions, nocturnal and tenebristic.
Hallberg is less interested in perfect formations in unison, in synchronicity as its own aesthetic goal, as he is in character and individual agency. He follows Woolliams’ attention to character detail – the barely restrained horror on the face of Rachel Rawlins’ Queen Mother as Von Rothbart dares to sit next to her, or Jill Ogai’s haughty disdain during the demeaning pas de six parade of suitors – so that the piece often feels close to psychological realism. But he is also attentive to the swooning Romanticism, the pure abstracted beauty of the piece. It’s a triumph of suppleness and narrative control.
Tchaikovsky’s sublime music – surely the greatest ever written for ballet, surpassing even Prokofiev’s score for Romeo and Juliet – is played with vigour and conviction by Orchestra Victoria under the baton of Jonathan Lo. The pace is languorous and expansive, with dynamics that emphasise delicacy and poise over bombast, and there are some terrific solos for oboe and violin.
But the key drawcard, as with any production of Swan Lake, is the dancers – particularly the women. As the doomed lover, Bemet is a knockout, her tremulousness and fragility achingly beautiful and sad. If she isn’t perhaps a natural Odile – never quite dangerous or mercurial enough to be scary – she still manages to convey the character’s sensuality and slyness. Caley is a fine match as her equally doomed prince, plaintive and melancholic. Following on from their extraordinary pas de deux in the recent Balanchine hit Jewels, they dance together magnificently. There is a deep, soulful connection between them and by rights they should grow into a renowned pairing.
There is strong support from several of the company’s senior artists, notably Rina Nemoto and Valerie Tereshchenko as lead swans, and Yuumi Yamada, Jill Ogai, Jade Wood and Aya Watanabe as the famous quartet of cygnets, that fiendish synchronised footwork made to look natural. Madden’s Von Rothbart is compelling, malignant and sexy. The female corps are glorious, quivering and flighty, recalling the murmuration of flocks of birds.
It’s a notably articulate and clear production – a mark of strong dramaturgy from Lucas Jervies, who also supplies additional choreography. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes are stunning, from the Regency splendour and courtly Austrian colours in the first act, to those gleaming jewel-encrusted white tutus for the swans. Daniel Ostling’s sets are perfect, moving from the rigid literalism of court to the fable-like chiaroscuro of the lake at night. TJ Gerckens’ rich, moody lighting is highly effective.
Any new Swan Lake has to contend with our memories and expectations; it has to grapple with the layers of meaning that have been laid down before it. Hallberg’s unashamedly traditional production doesn’t challenge the work as Murphy’s did – or Matthew Bourne or John Neumeier before him – but it does make a convincing argument for its continued relevance. It often feels like a beguiling dream, from which reality itself is othered.
• Swan Lake is on at the State Theatre in Melbourne until 30 September