Swan Lake, Royal New Zealand Ballet

St James Theatre, Wellington, July 18

TO mark its 60th anniversary – the first public performance was on June 30, 1953 – Royal New Zealand Ballet is offering graceful tribute to its oldest surviving former artistic director, Russell Kerr, by reviving the Swan Lake he made for the company in 1996. (Company founder Poul Gnatt died in 1995; Kerr led the company from 1962 to 1968 and had previously been heavily involved with it.)

Kerr, now 83 and a little frail, was able to oversee the final days of rehearsal and was given a mighty reception when he took the stage at the end of the first performance in Wellington. It was heart-warming to see him acknowledge the dancers rather than soak in the adulation. Sentiment alone, of course, won’t get a work to the stage. Kerr’s is a faithful rendering of the perennial favourite, made to suit small forces without losing the ballet’s essential grandeur. The fact that it was designed by the late, great Kristian Fredrikson is a huge plus, and in this season the contribution of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is a further bonus. On opening night Tchaikovsky’s score was played with brilliance, passion and unerring feel for the romantic pulse of the work. Nigel Gaynor, RNZB’s newly appointed music director and widely experienced in dance, was at the helm for this stunning performance. A sidelight: that the NZSO sounds in such top form reflects most happily on its music director, Pietari Inkinen, the young Finn who has stepped into the breach and will conduct The Ring for Opera Australia in November and December.

To these blessings it was possible last night to add the ingredient that really rocked the house – the glamour of first night stars Gillian Murphy and Karel Cruz. Being engaged to RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel makes Murphy a Wellingtonian by adoption and she spends a significant part of each year with RNZB as principal guest artist when she is not fulfilling her commitments as one of American Ballet Theatre’s starriest ballerinas. So the production had a big head start right there. Murphy’s partner was Karel Cruz, a guest from Pacific Northwest Ballet of great elegance who may not have been given a huge amount to do but did it with impeccable grace, manly charm and exquisite princely bearing. His double tours with impeccable fifths on landing and plush plie were a fine reminder of how they should be done. Not surprisingly, Wellington was quite agog today with his beauty.

In the first act Siegfried is being feted by the local peasantry in a lovely glade in the castle grounds and takes part in a little light dancing with a group of the men. Girls do charming things with garlands of flowers and the pas de trois emerges more organically from the Prince’s birthday activity than it often does. On opening night the trio of Lucy Green, Tonia Looker and Arata Miyagawa – the young Japanese dancer is a real find – did the honours with refreshingly modest manners. Rory Fairweather-Neylan bounced around indefatigably in the thankless (and, I think, regrettable) role of the Jester, all split leaps and mugging in the usual way. But Fairweather-Neylan was less objectionable than many a Jester, so good work there.

I liked the touch of peasant couples greeting the Queen and indicating their love for one another, which reminds one of Siegfried’s need to find a bride. Cruz could have appeared a little more melancholy about the unwanted pressure, given that we need Siegfried’s dissatisfaction to give Act I some dramatic backbone. Once we got lakeside and Cruz was in Murphy’s thrall, however, the necessary tension emerged. Murphy’s Swan Queen is no victim despite her entrapment. She is forceful and regal. When she tells Siegfried that they are at a lake filled with tears of sorrow, her mime is large and emphatic. She needs him to fall in love with her so she can be released, but she needs to explore love too, which she does in the adagio at the centre of the second act. She is far from passive.

The strength of her reading is both in the way the role of Odette is expressed physically and in the way it connects inexorably with the doppleganger Odile: you can see how Siegfried could be tricked. In the triumphant Act III fouette sequence Murphy threw in arms en couronne (held overhead), a glittering trace of the movement of swans’ wings brought into play. It was thrilling and it had the crowd roaring, but it was also dramatically convincing.

While basing his choreography on Petipa and Ivanov, Kerr had to work around a much smaller body of dancers than most companies would use for Swan Lake and has rung many changes. RNZB fields a corps of 16 swans but that cleverly includes the four cygnets and the two big swans, who melt in and out of the group. It is an entirely agreeable solution. I am less certain about the presentation of the princesses vying for Siegfried’s hand. They get rather lost in the whirl of activity, although last night looked absolutely divine in Fredrikson’s ornate tutus. Blingy, but very attractively so.

The ballet’s ending is smudged too. Odette and Siegfried hasten off, one assumes to free themselves via death, but perhaps not. Another viewing tonight will clarify, I trust. Whatever the detail, the moment lacks impact. The offset, though, is a final image of the swans’ corp in a lovely diagonal saluting the coming morning and their freedom.

Murphy and Cruz have further performances together tomorrow (July 20), and July 25 and 27. Tonight young Australian dancer Lucy Green appears as Odette-Odile. More on that tomorrow.

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