Odette to the power of four

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane. August 28, September 3 (matinee), September 3 (evening), September 4.

THE first act of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake ends as evening falls. Prince Siegfried has hurried away from his birthday party with no ceremony, disquieted by the realisation his carefree days are numbered. Because he is about to become king – this is no ordinary birthday; this is his coming of age – his mother has said he must marry.

In McKenzie’s version of this endlessly fascinating ballet there are some aspects of the narrative that are drawn too sketchily and details to quibble over, but after seeing four performances I have been won over by the central idea. With Zack Brown’s storybook designs providing a sumptuous setting, McKenzie creates a fantasy world in which myth can thrive, in which a sorcerer could cast a spell that turns a princess into a swan by day, and in which he can himself shape-shift between monster and suave nobleman.

Act III of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Act III of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

The atmospherics are nowhere better captured than at the Act I finale, in which the peasants who have been enjoying Siegfried’s festivities are the last to leave. Without the aristocracy present and bathed in Duane Schuler’s lustrous lighting design, they start gamboling more freely as the light fades, picking up wine goblets to take with them as they depart. I was reminded of Matisse’s painting La Danse, which celebrates the primal joy of communal celebration, and it is an image I will carry with me for a long time.

All this can only work, of course, if the dancers persuade one to enter their imaginative realm.

There was much to interest balletomanes. Misty Copeland made her debut as Odette and Paloma Herrera gave what was possibly her final performance in the role – the decision will come when Swan Lake is staged in ABT’s next season, which will be Herrera’s last (she recently announced her impending retirement). Newly minted principal artist Isabella Boylston appeared (unfortunately I missed her and Daniil Simkin, but people raved; I also missed Veronika Part). Martine Van Hamel, former ABT great, played the Queen Mother at some performances and radiated command. Recently elevated soloist Joseph Gorak showed why he has been plucked from the corps and two men still in the corps, Arron Scott and Calvin Royal III caught the eye. Yet another corps member, Thomas Forster, made a saturnine, panther-like Von Rothbart in several casts.

Three conductors shared Swan Lake duty over the nine performances, two of them with Australian connections. Music director Ormsby Wilkins was born in Sydney and was The Australian Ballet’s resident conductor in 1982, thereafter being a frequent guest conductor while making his career in the northern hemisphere. ABT principal conductor Charles Barker was the AB’s music director from 1997 to 2001 and is married to former AB principal dancer Miranda Coney. Each directed the Queensland Symphony Orchestra quite differently, and each time the QSO acquitted itself handsomely.

The ABT season, the company’s first in Australia, unfortunately got off to a lacklustre start. There may have been extenuating factors. David Hallberg was to have partnered Hee Seo on the August 28 opening night but withdrew relatively late to have ankle surgery. Cory Stearns was moved in. Whether it was jetlag or just one of those unfathomable matters of chemistry who knows, but Seo and Stearns failed to catch fire. Seo has many beautiful qualities as a dancer but looked uninvolved, Stearns operated on one supercilious level and the relationship was unprofitable. Alexandre Hammoudi’s Act III Von Rothbart was therefore left to provide the fireworks, and if Von Rothbart is the highlight of the show there’s a problem. The corps was untidy too. Not a great night all round.

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

I returned a week later to see Copeland’s historic debut as Odette. Tucked away at a Wednesday Brisbane matinee she gave an impassioned performance that brought the house to its feet. Her Odette was intense, warm and dramatically alert; her Odile sparkled seductively. It was a wonderful first performance. Indeed, it was the only one to bring tears to my eyes, even though her Siegfried, Hammoudi (also making a debut) was off form technically. Still, he partnered beautifully, and that ultimately mattered most.

That evening (September 3) Gillian Murphy gave an entirely different performance, imbued with the deep, deep understanding she has absorbed over many years. She, more than any other I have seen, evoked the eternal nature of Odette’s predicament. She was captured aeons ago and there is nothing but sorrow in her future. All those years in Von Rothbart’s thrall have altered her irrevocably. Murphy’s Odile was equally distinctive – fascinatingly hard, cold and vindictive. James Whiteside’s all-American boy Siegfried (divinely danced, with a blinder of an Act I solo) didn’t stand a chance.

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

On September 4 Paloma Herrera was stupendous, filling the stage with old-world glamour of a kind exceptionally rare these days. She took much of Odette’s choreography incredibly slowly – David LaMarche conducted – and claimed rapt attention at every instant. She commanded the stage more as a distillation of Swan Lake’s themes than the embodiment of two opposing characters. She seemed somehow abstract, yet entirely mesmerising. Odile has a balance on pointe in arabesque that often lasts only a split second; Herrera held it for an age: poised, implacable, timeless. Herrera has been a principal with ABT for 20 years and looks as if she could dance another 20. If it turns out this was her swan song, if you will, it was a great one.

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake for ABT

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake for ABT

Herrera was partnered by Stearns, whose dancing was as handsome and velvety as it had been on opening night but this time he was engaged and vivid. He looked an entirely different man. I’m sometimes asked how I can go to the same show again and again. It’s because it’s never the same show, not ever.

Heart untouched; soul unshaken

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, August 28.

KEVIN McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre is a medieval fairy tale of transformation. A woman is turned into a swan. An evil lake-dwelling sorcerer becomes a devastatingly attractive nobleman in the blink of an eye. Two lovers die by drowning but moments later, in an apotheosis, suffuse the air with their benevolence.

These things are important elements, but are a kind of outer skin. They tell us what is happening, but not why. What of the underlying purpose – the desperate love and profound act of forgiveness that bring Swan Lake into the human realm, give it immediacy and make it so moving? They are not to be encountered here, or at least not at ABT’s opening night performance, which was filled with admirable dancing but empty of emotional resonance.

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake

It is possible things may have been different if the originally announced opening night Prince Siegfried, David Hallberg, had not had to withdraw due to injury. Perhaps he draws more from the reticent Hee Seo than did his replacement, Cory Stearns, on the evening of ABT’s Australian premiere. Stearns is a fine classicist with aristocratic lineaments and the plushest of plies, but he and Seo lack chemistry. The approaches each took didn’t catch fire when put together.

Stearns conveyed ennui rather than melancholy and superciliousness rather than noblesse oblige, qualities that did not entirely recommend him, even though his handsome carriage, light landings and princely line made a strong impression. Seo’s theatrically muted Odette was beautifully shaped in the physical sense but there was little idea of what she wanted, or did not. After meeting Siegfried, of whom she seemed not terribly afraid, Seo rarely looked at him, rather gazing down demurely or looking up to the heavens piously. Her eyes and face were not expressive and with her feelings a closed book, the loveliness of her shapes and exquisite articulation went for far less than they might and a couple of fumbles acquired more prominence than they should have.

It was therefore not entirely surprising in the third act to find Odette’s doppelganger Odile short on charisma. Seo wore a black tutu and a wide smile but the spark stopped there. There were no fireworks to be had, just a dutiful set of unadorned fouettes.

McKenzie opens the ballet with a prologue showing Odette’s capture by Von Rothbart. In Zack Brown’s otherwise unimpeachable designs, the sorceror looks like the Incredible Hulk (poor Roman Zhurbin on opening night) but tricks Odette by assuming exceptionally alluring human form (in this guise he was played by lucky Alexandre Hammoudi). The latter’s appearance in Act III is thus signaled. He is the super-confident, ultra-seductive gatecrasher who will bring disaster in the form of Odile. It’s a gift of a part as Von Rothbart sexily reels in all the princesses who are being paraded for Siegfried’s approval and makes the Queen Mother not a little hot and bothered. It probably shouldn’t have been the highlight of the evening, but it was.

Hammoudi, a soloist, smouldered enjoyably although he doesn’t quite have the impact of principal Marcelo Gomes in the role (could anyone?). Gomes is in Brisbane but not cast in Swan Lake it would appear. Brisbane has been denied a great pleasure. (Gomes is scheduled to appear in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita on Friday and Saturday evenings in the Three Masterpieces triple bill and in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free at Saturday’s matinee.)

The third act of Swan Lake slides into a brutally truncated fourth act – a decision that unbalances the ballet badly, giving more weight to the first and third acts set at court than to the white second and fourth acts at the lake. We see something of the swans’ anguish at their queen’s betrayal but the promise of tragedy explored and amplified is only minimally delivered. Instead the action moves briskly to Odette’s death leap and then Siegfried’s (Stearns went for broke here), followed by dawn, Von Rothbart’s broken spell, and Odette and Siegfried as lovers forever in the afterlife. Curtain. Heart untouched; soul unshaken.

It was a treat to see ABT’s music director Ormsby Wilkins authoritatively at the helm of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in what was something of a homecoming for the Sydney-born conductor. He will lead other performances in this short season, in which I hope different partnerships I am to see – Misty Copeland with Hammoudi, Gillian Murphy with James Whiteside and Paloma Herrera with Stearns – offer greater passion and nourishment.

Swan Lake ends Thursday. Three Masterpieces, ballets by Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky and Jerome Robbins has four performances from Friday.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 1.