Swan Lake: Sydney summing up

The Australian Ballet, Sydney, March 31, April 2, April 5, April 16.

The Australian Ballet will undoubtedly stick with Stephen Baynes’s 2012 production of Swan Lake – now being revived for the first time – for many a year to come. It has sold out 21 performances at the Sydney Opera House and a check of the Arts Centre Melbourne website shows exceptionally strong demand for the 14 performances the AB has scheduled in June at the State Theatre (it is significantly bigger than Sydney’s Joan Sutherland Theatre). Before Melbourne there is Adelaide, where there are six performances in late May. It looks as if that’s where it will be easiest to nab a seat if you so desire.

Audiences, then, are happy with this traditional alternative to the perennially popular Graeme Murphy 2002 version, which will be revived for the umpteenth time in July for performances in London.

Swan Lake - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

The Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake.

The ballet is, nevertheless, frustrating, although not without its virtues. Chief among them is a fourth act that transforms the predominantly straight-line, front-to-back patterns for the second act swans – Baynes reproduces the traditional Act II choreography – into a flurry of circles and angles as Odette’s sisters in captivity try to protect her after Siegfried’s betrayal. On first acquaintance, in 2012 that is, I thought they looked too busy. In these performances (I saw three and a dress rehearsal) the intent and emotion were abundantly clear.

This forceful display of solidarity in the face of tragedy stays with one powerfully, although it is soon undercut by a weak ending. Obscured by the mass of swans, Odette dashes offstage and is seen no more. Siegfried then also runs into the wings – to where? There is no visceral connection between his departure and the sight in the final moments of his body being hauled out of the lake at the back of the stage by the sorcerer Rothbart. You come to understand that Siegfried has drowned himself in guilt and remorse but are denied the drama of it. We also must assume the hazy projection of something flying palely up on high is Odette, although you need recourse to the program notes to tell you that although she is still a swan, Rothbart no longer has power over her. Puzzlingly, the synopsis refers to the projection as the released “soul of Odette”, which makes sense given the formless nature of the image but also makes it sound as if she is dead.

There are other aspects of the storytelling that aren’t sufficiently developed to give the kind of texture Baynes clearly wanted. The late 19th century setting (Hugh Colman designed sets and costumes) is Romantic in spirit, with the Prince a deeply melancholy man who shrinks from the burden of power. There is a suggestion at the beginning of the ballet that Baron von Rothbart has sway not only over the women-swans he has captured but also over the life of the royal family, a situation somewhat undercut by his giggle-inducing pretend violin-playing turn at the Act III ball. (I could be wrong, but Rothbart’s red wig seems to have been toned down significantly to advantage.)

And questions arise from the frame Baynes has devised. Did Siegfried’s father have his own lake encounter? What will Rothbart do now the last male in the royal family has done himself in? Are these questions too literal? All I know is that if I start thinking about why an idea is planted I am not fully engaged in the storytelling. Too often it seems Baynes is saying “just trust me, this is meaningful; if you read the program you’ll understand” rather than developing the idea fully onstage.

I wasn’t able to see Amber Scott on opening night in Sydney but at the dress rehearsal she showed the qualities that were so praised by her first-night admirers: exquisitely delicate and vulnerable as Odette; a strong, glamorous Odile. Her Siegfried, Adam Bull, and she looked more connected with the drama – less ghostly – than when I saw them in 2012.

Swan Lake Baynes 2016_Amber Scott Adam Bull_Photo Kate Longley-0G4A29492016307

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Swan Lake. Photo: Kate Longley

Each of the other three Odette-Odiles I saw during this season brought interestingly different qualities to their roles. I reviewed principal artist Ako Kondo’s debut performance at the matinee on April 2 here. I saw principal Lana Jones on April 5 with Ty King-Wall as her attentive but over-shadowed Siegfried, and I had been expecting to see senior artist Natasha Kusch at the April 16 matinee but she was indisposed. Long-serving senior artist Miwako Kubota took her place, partnered by Andrew Killian as she had been in earlier performances. Killian was also Kusch’s partner, having stepped in to replace Daniel Gaudiello after his surprise departure at the end of Melbourne’s Vitesse season.

Jones was very much the swan queen, a magnificently regal figure who dominated her realm despite being a captive. She may have been at this lake, in this form, for aeons. When Prince Siegfried and she came face to face Jones’s reaction suggested a challenge – who are you to come into my world? – before she realised he may be her salvation. At times she moved breathtakingly slowly without losing touch with the music in a sleight of hand that suggested water as her natural element (the ravishingly fast quivers of her foot as it beats against her ankle at the end of the Act II pas de deux brought to mind not only a bird’s fluttering but swift-flowing currents beneath the lake’s surface). As Odile, Jones was mesmerising, the sorcerer if you will, making light work of entrancing Siegfried.

Kubota’s passionate, desperate Act IV was thrilling and she was a fascinating Odile, some trouble with the fouetté turns notwithstanding. Far from being the cold, glittering creature in many readings, Kubota was abundantly sensual and inviting. At this performance Simon Thew’s conducting of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra felt too slow for Kubota in her Act II solo; there was an audible winding down that wasn’t helpful musically or for Kubota’s performance. (Andrew Mogrelia conducted the other three performances I saw with tempi that were responsive to the dancers without distorting the score.)

In secondary roles soloists Benedicte Bemet and Dimity Azoury and coryphée Jill Ogai did their best with the bitchy Duchess, a woman whose motives aren’t always clear. Perhaps she’s trying out for the role of Royal Mistress because the action makes it obvious she’s not in contention as bride. The three are very much on the must-watch list. Senior artist Robyn Hendricks and coryphée Valerie Tereshchenko were enticing Russian Princesses and the Cygnets, who I saw in various combinations, were all splendidly in tune with one another. All hail to coryphée Karen Nanasca, the common denominator in all four Cygnet casts and, I’ve read, a force to be reckoned with when it comes to revving Cygnets up to give their best.

Finally, a word about Brett Chynoweth. On hearing Gaudiello had retired before his advertised Swan Lake performances I thought Chynoweth might be asked to partner Kusch. They danced together in the new Sleeping Beauty late last year and it was after that performance as Prince Désiré that Chynoweth was rightly promoted to senior artist (very oddly the AB’s highly detailed new website doesn’t list that as a repertoire highlight for him – it was). I wrote then: “In Beauty he radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing.” I felt the same about his Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2014. Chynoweth gives his heart to roles such as this and infuses his faster, higher, sharper technique with rare eloquence. In a pretty thankless role such as Benno in the Baynes Swan Lake, Chynoweth compensated by being over-emphatic. He doesn’t need to try that hard. As his brilliantly danced Puck in the Ashton The Dream showed earlier last year, Chynoweth is such a bright presence on stage and a dazzling dancer. As Beauty and Nutcracker proved, he can also be a prince.

The Australian Ballet’s 20:21

Sydney Opera House, November 5

After a year dominated by Giselle, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, the lavish new Sleeping Beauty and Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the dancers of The Australian Ballet were undoubtedly delighted to dive into the pared-back costumes and sharp-edged choreography of 20:21 (the title refers to the 20th and 21st centuries). They certainly looked as if they’d been let off the leash.

The three works on the bill were well chosen – very different in choreographic style but sharing a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and each driven by a score to get the blood pumping. The oldest ballet, Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, was made in 1972 to music by Stravinsky (written in 1942-45); Tharp’s In the Upper Room premiered in 1986, powered by Philip Glass; and Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow is new, having made its debut in Melbourne in late August accompanied by a muscular commissioned electronic score from German duo 48nord.

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Tim Harbour's Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Symphony in Three Movements is strongly hierarchical and fascinatingly structured. There is a corps of 16 women clad in white leotards and a group of five women in black leotards, the latter supported by partners in black tights and close-fitting white T-shirts. These two sets of dancers frame three principal couples, one of which is at the centre of the work, dancing the deeply sensuous pas de deux that comprises the second movement. (Amusingly, this lovely music was originally intended to form part of the soundtrack to the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette – a biography of the young woman who saw visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes and was later canonised; Stravinsky didn’t complete the project.)

On opening night the women in white were rather less crisp than one would wish, nor did all of them convey the assurance and chic required to carry off the martial gestures, pony-step prancing, showgirl high kicks, jogging and more, but the three first-cast leading couples (Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Andrew Killian, Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes) exuded command and sophistication. Scott and Hawkes danced the pas de deux with a sweet element of wistfulness as well as the lusciousness seen in swimming arms and entwining necks and the whimsicality of turned-in knees and hands. Scott, who is growing in stature with every season, was a glowing presence and also carried one of the ballet’s most enchanting moments as she whirled around the stage twice in a great circle of piqué turns as the corps jogged about insouciantly.

Hawkes (a senior artist) and Killian (principal artist) danced in all three works on opening night. It was an impressive feat given the demands of each. Filigree and Shadow is a non-stop display of angst and athleticism. It looks and sounds thrilling and the opening night audience gave it a huge cheer in Sydney, as I gather they did in Melbourne at the premiere, so it seems a bit churlish to point out that it doesn’t really say much about its theme of “catharsis for aggression”. Still, the cast of 12 was as sleek as seals in form-fitting grey, super-energised by the propulsive music and performed with the cocky insolence of those who know they are, essentially, as gods compared with the rest of us. Brett Chynoweth, Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli were particularly fine in their trio and Vivienne Wong and Dimity Azoury gave no quarter in their encounters with Killian and Hawkes. The elegant contributions of Kelvin Ho (set) and Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) added greatly to the sense of occasion.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Wong and Azoury then turned up as “stompers” in In the Upper Room, the ones who wear sneakers and do a lot of running in a work that joins the languages of sport and training with that of dance. Here – and this is very rare in ballet – effort is made explicit. This is a ballet of sweat and exhaustion as well as grace and artistry. The magic comes from seeing the reach for transcendence as Glass’s music pulsates inexorably and builds towards its ecstatic final movement. In a fine first cast, principals Daniel Gaudiello and Chengwu Guo were exceptional.

A program such as this also gives opportunities for dancers from the lowest ranks to have a moment in the spotlight. From the Filigree and Shadow first cast Plant is in the corps de ballet and Morelli a coryphée, and coryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson drew the eye in In the Upper Room.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had an early night, playing only Symphony in Three Movements (the other two scores are recorded). With AB music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the AOBO gave a strong account of this vibrant, rhythmically bracing score.

Ends in Sydney on November 21.