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Flash Review 2, 12-4: Swan's Fresh Feathers
A New Classic and a New Star are Born at the Australian Ballet

By Suzanne Davidson
Copyright 2002 Suzanne Davidson

SYDNEY -- Arriving at the Sydney Opera House for the local premiere of Graeme Murphy's "Swan Lake" Friday, one was confronted with a large ice sculpture of a swan at the base of the staircase leading from the box office foyer to the southern foyer of the Opera Theatre. Going up the steps, one walked on alternately black and white be-ribboned steps, arriving at the top to a string quartet playing under a black and white awning, while waiters offered 'savories' to champagne-sipping members of the audience. One had unmistakably arrived at An Event!

A couple of hours earlier, the heavens had opened over Sydney and the audience had literally inched their way to the Opera House, most taking at least twice as long as usual to reach the icon-on-the-peninsula. To avoid people being locked out for the first act, the curtain was held -- twice -- and the Sydney premiere of this "Swan Lake" opened half an hour late.

As I'd attended the world premiere in Melbourne, some weeks ago, this was my second experience, and this time my seat was rather further away from the stage than for my first viewing. That may have been why my reaction wasn't quite as emotional as the first time. Nevertheless, from the moment the curtain rose I was completely involved in the fortunes of the tragic young Princess, her weak new husband, the ambitious and manipulative Baroness, and the general shenanigans of the 'Court.' Maybe the fact that we have all been subjected to acres of print and footage about the Windsor "fairy-tale" had something to do with it? Perhaps, but the piece communicated from the first moment -- even to the second-last row in the Stalls.

There have been many different productions of this great classic, some more interesting than others, but all totally recognizable as variations on the original.

The Australian Ballet's Inaugural production on November 2 1962 was Peggy van Praagh's rather unimaginative staging of the evening-length Petipa-Ivanov "Swan Lake." The last production in the Australian Ballet's repertoire was Anne Woolliams's version, with a heart-rending pas de deux choreographed for Act IV.

However, whilst this "Swan Lake" is a 21st Century vision inspired by the same Tchaikovsky score which had inspired Petipa and Ivanov back in the 19th Century, it is also a completely new ballet.

It is the same tale, but seen from today's perspective and told in today's language. That is why I believe that it will, in time, become a classic in its own right.

The choreography uses the vocabulary of today's classical dancer whose body can cope with virtually any style and technique. It has become fashionable these days for choreographers to include 'modern' movements in their choreography, which invariably looks forced and makes one wonder why they bothered to mess with the original at all. This new "Swan Lake" is filled with superbly musical, creative, and often witty choreography, always using the most appropriate of the dance vocabulary. And it's a tribute to the Australian company -- but particularly to Simone Goldsmith, who created the role of Odette -- that the dancers not only coped with every nuance, but that their artistry enabled them to add a new dimension.

Most of the 19th Century repertoire that became the classics was the result of the collaboration of a number of leaders in their professions. That is also true of this production, which was created by choreographer Graeme Murphy, creative associate Janet Vernon, designer Kristian Fredrikson, and lighting designer Damian Cooper.

Whilst a work is only as good as its interpreters, it wouldn't surprise me if this "Swan Lake" proves to be (almost) performer-proof.

Last night (as at the world premiere) was indisputably Simone Goldsmith's night.

In Act I, one can feel goosebumps as Goldsmith switches from graceful elegance to manic physicality as she decides to emulate the Baroness in an effort to make her husband jealous. She flies around the stage distributing her sexual favors in a fury, as she is thrown around by the corps in a terrifyingly acrobatic series of lifts.

In Act II, which opens in a sanatorium for the mentally ill, she crouches in the window-sill watching as her husband arrives with the Baroness, who stays outside to wait for him. As he approaches her, Goldsmith's entire body is contorted with suffering and fear, but she slowly allows herself to relax sufficiently to become once more the beautiful girl we first saw, in love and glowing. But as the act draws to its conclusion, we are back in the sanatorium and she is back in her nerve-wracked body, rocking slowly backwards and forwards. It's terrifying to watch.

In Act III, having decided to make a last attempt to get her husband back, Odette arrives at a party thrown by the Baroness, who, seeing the Prince react to his wife's calm, serene beauty, fights desperately but unsuccessfully to retain him. The whole audience was giggling in relief, as Odette calmly took over from the hated Baroness.
Simone Goldsmith and Steven Heathcote of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's new "Swan Lake." Jeff Busby photo courtesy the Australian Ballet.

Simone Goldsmith is the possessor of a perfect classical line, from her well-shaped head and long neck to her superbly arched feet. This tiny, beautiful, princess-like figure has the capacity to contort herself in front of your eyes into a puppet-like picture of horrible, gauche suffering, enough to wring your heart, but never over-done. Her technique and placing are perfection, and this, combined with a deep artistry and musicality, place this young ballerina among the international greats.

Steven Heathcote, one of the most popular stars this company has ever had, received a well-deserved ovation, as did Lynette Wills. But when Goldsmith came out in front of the curtain, the whole place went berserk. She had yet again given the audience an artistic experience, which lingers in the memory for a lifetime. The Australian Ballet's newest principal artist is indeed an artist of world class.

Steven Heathcote's Prince has grown in depth since the world premiere. His development from a spoilt, golden, youthful bridegroom easily manipulated by a sophisticated, worldly lover, to a more mature man who discovers genuine love just in time to lose it, was beautifully drawn. Lynette Wills has not yet discovered all the dramatic possibilities in the role of the Baroness, but these are early days, and her sheer physicality and strength help in establishing the great difference between the two women.

Adrian Burnett, on the other hand, made the most of the tiny role of the Baroness's cuckolded husband, lending it a quiet dignity.

Joshua Consandine made an engaging Duke, though Madeleine Eastoe, his Young Duchess-to-be, tended to overdo the 'bright young thing' quality of her character.

Rachael Read and Annabel Bronner Reid led the swans with superb classical style and smoothly perfected performances. The performance of the corps in Act II was perfectly unified in dancing the new choreography, which was a miracle of creative contemporary interpretation of the 19th Century original. The start of the cygnets' dance is a wonderful example of Murphy's witty touch. After all, as former Australian Ballet artistic director Maina Gielgud said when she commissioned Murphy to choreograph a new "Nutcracker," "he comes from the classics, the classical technique is his language, and so he can play with it."

The production also has a number of older members of the Court whose performances benefited from age and experience, though this cannot be said of Shane Carroll's interpretation of The Queen. She lacked weight and dimension, and it was difficult to fathom her attitude to her son, his new wife and the Baroness. This seriously undermined the dramatic sense of the whole.

The sets and costumes were perfect, except, again, for The Queen's costume, which added to her problem in at least establishing her position of seniority and class. Her first entrance is in an enormous hat and wearing a skirt of an unflattering length. The members of her Court looked a great deal more grand than she did.

The lighting was excellent throughout, with a wonderful sense of illusion and sudden returns to harsh reality, which strengthened the dramatic impact of many scenes.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Principal Conductor Mark Summerbell gave a satisfyingly dramatic and clear performance of Tchaikovsky's score, and one which supported the dancers.

The entire company gave its all, and the curtain calls went on too long to continue counting. The audience reacted as one, spontaneously cheering, stamping and applauding.

The last time I remember seeing a performance of such realism and artistic integrity was a "Romeo & Juliet" by the Bolshoi Ballet with Ulanova and Fadeyechev in the leading roles, at Covent Garden in the '50s.

Now there's a thought! Should that perhaps be the next Murphy/Vernon/Fredrikson epic?

The Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's version of "Swan Lake" continues at the Sydney Opera House through December 19, with the cast reviewed here repeating tomorrow and Saturday, again on December 13 and 19, and at next Wednesday's matinee.

Suzanne Davidson is a Sydney-based writer and the founder of the Sydney Dance Company. She also danced for Peter Darrell's Western Theatre Ballet, the Australian Ballet, and in Maurice Bejart's original "Rite of Spring" in Brussels.

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