Swan Lake 

In further celebrations of and centrepiece for The Australian Ballet’s (TAB) 60th anniversary, a striking new production of all-time classic, Swan Lake, opened Tuesday evening at Melbourne’s State Theatre. Best of all, it captivates and shimmers with a feast of incredibly sublime and technically refined dancing.

Directed by artistic director David Hallberg, the inspiration for this Swan Lake stems from the company’s 1977 production by the artistic director at the time, Anne Woolliams – after the choreography of widely influential Russian choreographer, Marius Petipa – with additional choreography by Ray Powell and Lucas Jervies. Pronounced clarity and contrast are the hallmarks of Hallberg’s 60th anniversary gift.

Harking from German fairy tale sources, the story concerns the despairing Princess Odette (Benedicte Bemet), turned into a swan by a wicked sorcerer’s curse, von Rothbart (Jarryd Madden) and the troubled Prince Siegfried (Joseph Caley), who falls in love with her. Themes run richly in this four-act-plus-prologue work that see-saws between two settings – the prince’s palace and a lake in the forest where the princess is captive.

The varicoloured pomp and pretentiousness of the palace and the dark, foreboding weight of the forest, where the beating heart of Swan Lake resides, create the great overarching visual contrast within which contrasting ideas are skilfully reflected.

The distaste and artificiality of the ‘real’ world in contrast to the soul-bearing heart of the ‘unreal’ dreamlike natural world – cued by opposing excess and restraint – reads strongly as part of what feels like a poignant yin and yang encounter. 

TAB-2023-Swan-Lake-Joseph-Caley-Benedicte-Bemet-photo-by-Kate-LongleyFreedom and escape – the prince’s from a domineering mother and the princess’ from a reality snatched away – the symbolic faithfulness of white and betrayal of black and life and death all contribute to opposite but interconnected forces at play.

To these ideas, theatrical enchantment and excellence are achieved by a perfectly blended creative team – Daniel Ostling (sets), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes) and T.J. Gerckens (lighting).

One corner of a stately neoclassical-styled country villa and its adjoining terrace in Act 1 reverse to reveal Act 3’s lavish ballroom scene while Prologue, Act 2 and Act 4 employ a minimalist, sinisterly blackened space contained by receding proscenia. 

When the tragedy comes to an end – hardly a spoiler since the physical tension and visual interpretation make it decidedly clear – a dollop-shaped hillock appears in the background from which the prince takes a leap.

On this canvas, TAB’s dancers execute, enliven and transform every choreographic element into potently felt emotion, art and beauty. Fused with it, Hallberg’s attention to character detailing opens the eyes to tableau after tableau of exciting anticipation. 

My only quibble is in the overly gestured carnivalesque dancing of the ostentatious aristocracy in Act 1 at Prince Siegfried’s name day festivities, in spite of a perceived intent that supports the pretences at hand. The folkish exuberance of the estate peasants, on the other hand, fits like a glove.

It is the female dancers, however, who etch the ballet’s signature beauty as the lakeside swan-maidens, uniformly hypnotic in their white pancake tutus and caught under a spell in which only true and faithful love can break.

Two dozen or so of them communicate their swan-maidens’ plight with extraordinary, unified step in a multitude of formations linear, triangular and circular, then transformed by peeling off or weaving through with wondrous organic kineticism.

TAB-2023-Swan-Lake-Yuumi-Yamada-Jill-Ogai-Jade-Wood-Aya-Watanabe-photo-by-Kate-LongleyValerie Tereshchenko and Rina Nemoto lead the swan-maidens with distinctive grace while, in the iconic and often parodied Dance of the Cygnets, Yuumi Yamada, Jill Ogai, Aya Watanabe and Jade Wood glide with clockwork precision in a gobsmacking crowd-pleaser.

The entire flock is a pinnacle of support for the remarkably enigmatic and exquisite finesse Bemet conveys as Odette. Bemet gleams throughout Odette’s trajectory from initial trepidation to affection shown in her love for Siegfried, dancing a brilliant Act 2 pas de deux with effortless pliability and precision footwork as she is guided through weightless avian flight by Caley’s Siegfried.

The challenges escalate when, in Act 3 as von Rothbart’s daughter Odile – transformed in the likeness of Odette to deceive Siegfried – Bemet seduces with confidence and cunning, culminating in a show-stopping series of devastating fouettés. Bremet won’t be stealing the limelight all season. She shares the twin roles with principal dancers Sharni Spencer and Dimity Azouri.

TAB-2023-Swan-Lake-Joseph-Caley-photo-by-Kate-LongleyAs Siegfried, Caley’s opening night began on nervous footing but the nerves melted away to reveal a combined sensitivity and bravura in a performance convincingly attuned to Bremet’s Odette/Odile. 

Milking malevolence with ease, Madden leaps and swoops about dramatically as a vampiric von Rothbart. Rachel Rawlins is appropriately haughty and staunch as Siegfried’s mother and, often found at her side like a loyal spaniel but fleets about in spectacularly gymnastic form, Marcus Morelli is the endearing Jester.

A jubilant Act 1 pas de six and the presentation of three foreign princesses as suitors to the prince in Act 3, along with their entourage, add to highlights that pad the story with entertaining side dishes that further showcase the breadth of talent in the ranks.

Of course, every mood would not be complete without the melodiously ornate and rhythmically pulsating score composed by Tchaikovsky. On opening night the prologue started tamely but, before long, music director Jonathan Lo set a pace and balance that allowed all the orchestral colours to shine and the contrasts, as on stage, to resonate thanks to the expertise within Orchestra Victoria.

In both respecting tradition and adding vision, Hallberg’s anniversary gift builds on the company’s affection for Swan Lake and certainly has a healthy life ahead. A new generation of TAB hopefuls will no doubt be dreaming of their chance to dance it. 

Swan Lake 
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Tuesday 19 September 2023
Season continues to 30 September 2023
Bookings: www.australianballet.com.au

Following the Melbourne season, Swan Lake will be presented at the Adelaide Festival Centre (7 – 14 October), Queensland Performing Arts Centre (24 – 28 October) and Sydney Opera House (1 – 20 December). For more information, visit: www.australianballet.com.au for details.

Images: Artists of The Australian Ballet in Swan Lake | Joseph Caley and Benedicte Bemet in Swan Lake | Yuumi Yamada, Jill Ogai, Jade Wood, Aya Watanabe in Swan Lake | Joseph Caley in Swan Lake | all photos by Kate Longley

Review: Paul Selar