West Australian Ballet celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and at last has the numbers to enable a Swan Lake. The company decided not to go the safe route of staging a production that could belong anywhere. Instead it has taken inspiration from its location and the history of the place it calls home.
The ballet’s familiar European setting is gone. Before a note of Tchaikovsky’s score is heard a woman-swan is seen huddled under a star-filled sky, surrounded by a protective group of Noongar Beeliar. These are the people of the Swan River, here for tens of thousands of years before the colonial settlement of Perth in 1829. Their totem is the Black Swan, a bird considered impossible by Europeans until a 17th-century Dutch explorer convinced unbelievers in the northern hemisphere by sending a few swans home.
The Noongar Beeliar dance their Black Swan dance and hear the Spirit of the Land call to them in an ancient song. Here, right at the start, the ballet declares the centrality of the Noongar people to this narrative. The deep spiritual connection the first inhabitants have with their land permeates Swan Lake and enriches it. The supernatural is inextricably bound with the natural world as the Noongar experience is woven tightly into the structure. There isn’t a royal court within cooee.
There is noble intent. That’s not in question. The surprise is seeing how well Noongar culture and classical ballet sit side by side, given the polar opposition of dance styles. One, danced by performers from Gya Ngoop Keeninyarra (One Blood Dancers), stamps itself into the earth; the other is in constant denial of gravity’s downward pressure.
Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor may have seemed an unusual choice for this project but he did deliver WAB a huge hit with Dracula in 2018 so knows the company. He worked on Swan Lake in close consultation with Noongar guide and leader Barry McGuire, who also sings in the production.
The action unfolds at the port of Fremantle, in Perth and on the banks of the Swan in early colonial days, locations lovingly rendered in Phil R. Daniels’s set and Jon Buswell’s lighting. The night-sky backcloths and depiction of the mouth of the Swan River are magical.
Prince Siegfried is now Sebastian (Oscar Valdes on opening night, Matthew Lehmann in the second cast). Sebastian is the son of a businessman who cannot accept Sebastian’s transformative friendship with Noongar Elder Mowadji (charismatic guest artist Kyle Morrison at all performances). The simple turn of the man’s back to Mowadji speaks volumes.
An unwanted marriage is on the cards, Sebastian is tricked into thinking one woman is another and tragedy ensues. Pastor sticks essentially to the bones of the traditional narrative but it suits his purpose to split the roles of Odette and Odile decisively, with Odile introduced early as the daughter of a land-grabbing businessman in cahoots with Sebastian’s father. They want the Noongars’ precious country for the usual mercenary purposes.
Pastor wisely keeps the beloved Act II choreography mostly intact. White-clad Odette apart, the swans are arrayed in Charles Cusack Smith’s stunning black tutus with touches of red, a reference to black swans’ red beaks. The women look unusually authoritative and beyond glamorous. The sorcerer von Rothbart here becomes a bird of prey, a mighty wedge-tailed eagle who harries the swans. It’s a wonderful translation that enables the production to refer visually to the Noongar legend of how white birds got black feathers. At the end of the second act The Eagle attacks Odette and white feathers fly through the air. When she returns for the final act her white tutu has begun to turn black.
Pastor elsewhere creates a lively mix of the familiar and the new, delivered with winning exuberance by a sleek, confident company. In the first act the traditional pas de trois choreography is made fresh and buoyant and Pastor moves the Russian and Hungarian dances forward to add variety to the gathering. This Swan Lake was never going to be one for the textual purists and it’s a decision that works well.
Far less satisfactory is the muddled third act. Having entered the world of the swans and fallen in love with Odette, Sebastian will now be pressed to become engaged to Odile at a swanky party. Two families will be united in the pursuit of wealth. Odile swans in – pardon the expression – swathed in a vast white feathered cape (it must be Odette!) as she cavorts with the Spanish troupe inexplicably escorting her. First-cast Chihiro Nomura’s vulgarity and rapacity as Odile were so all-consuming it was impossible she could be mistaken for Kiki Saito’s exquisite, ethereal Odette. Nomura did not look comfortable with what was asked of her.
The gulf was slightly less yawning on the second night between Dayana Hardy Acuña’s intense, sorrowing Odette and Carina Roberts’s more multi-layered Odile but nothing can save this idea. Too bad, because the interaction is vital to plot and character. Sebastian, already a less imposing figure than Morrison’s Mowadji, looks weak and foolish. No number of Odile’s showpiece fouettés can compensate. (While we’re at it, when the ballet is revived, as it surely will be, Pastor might like to reconsider the old-fashioned practice in which those seated on the sidelines send around a kind of Mexican wave of stilted arm gestures as dancers circle about.)
WAB artistic director Aurélien Scannella has been at his post for a decade now and can be proud of the way in which WAB has increased steadily in size and accomplishment. Everywhere you looked there were exciting performances. And then there was this idea for a Swan Lake that would bring traditional Aboriginal spirituality and dance into the ballet fold in a highly visible act of homage and reconciliation. There are a few things that might be revisited but pluses far outweigh minuses. ir
Barry McGuire’s song is heard over the last bars of Tchaikovsky and the Noongar Beeliar, who have tenderly protected Odette as best they can, gather up Sebastian. It’s a profoundly beautiful ending to a Swan Lake like no other.
Swan Lake ends on December 11.
A version of this review appeared in The Australian on November 21.