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Flash Review 2, 6-12: Where the 'Wild Swans' Grow
Tankard Tanks at Oz Ballet
By Chloe Smethurst
Copyright 2003 Chloe Smethurst
MELBOURNE -- Another
fairy-tale ballet? Yes, but this one may not be as long-lived as
some of its predecessors. "Wild Swans" has been made for the Australian
Ballet by an outstanding creative team, including choreographer
Meryl Tankard, and yet is still not quite up to scratch. My impression
of the Melbourne premiere at the State Theatre last Friday was of
a somewhat hastily put together production, lacking choreographic
The Hans Christian Andersen
story that is the basis for the ballet follows the traditional fairy-tale
formula. Princess Eliza and her eleven brothers live with their
mother and father in a faraway kingdom. When their mother dies and
their father remarries, their evil step-mother has a fit of jealousy
and turns the brothers into swans. Eliza's task is to knit eleven
jumpers from the thread of stinging nettles to break the curse and
free her brothers.
The opening scene of
the ballet was one of the strongest, with clever use of a scrim
to heighten the sense of unreality. The author (Stephen Baynes)
enters the stage along with his characters, their shadows skewing
and contorting as they move. Following a theme of an Andersen illustrator
who used paper cutouts, we see paper dolls and soldiers crossing
the stage in stark relief against the scrim. Also introduced is
the Step-mother, immediately recognizable by a clever construction
-- two dancers (Rachael Read and Annabel Bronner Reid) in a costume
which is joined at the hip, so that she appears to have two heads.
here it only gets worse. The choreography, credited in the program
to have been devised by Tankard in conjunction with the dancers,
has few highlights and is generally mediocre. While the dancing
is technically strong and the characterizations are quite good,
they aren't enough to pull the choreography out of the muck. If
not for the program notes, it would have been impossible to tell
that the princes had been turned into swans, as their movements
failed to portray this at all. The paper dolls, while novel in appearance,
had little to work with in the way of choreography. When Princess
Eliza (Felicia Palanca) meets the Prince (Damien Welch) she is destined
to marry, their pas de deux is passionless and easily forgotten.
Again, one gets the feeling that the lack of depth in the choreography
may be due to the time constraints placed on the choreographer.
There are redeeming,
signature Tankard moments in the work, more of which would have
been welcome. When Eliza finally finds her swan-brothers and is
lifted into the sky with them, the use of flying apparati and a
gorgeously extended skirt create a visual fantasy which is stunning
to the eye. The wedding celebrations for Eliza and her Prince involve
characters from other Hans Christian Andersen stories, including
the Emperor and his new clothes. The routine he performs and his
surprise costume provide much needed comic relief in a finale which
otherwise lacks strength. The eight female dancers in the corps,
who appear throughout the work, have a memorable scene where each
one sits on some kind of wheeled stool, covered by an oversized
circular skirt. This allowed them to glide around the stage, their
legs invisible, creating an illusion somewhere between dodgem cars
and autumn leaves floating down a stream.
The fantastic costuming
and visual design for the piece can be attributed to Angus Strathie
and Regis Lansac, respectively. Strathie has such credits to his
name as the Acadamy-Award winning "Moulin Rouge" and Baz Luhrmann's
Broadway production of "La Boheme," while Lansac has worked extensively
in Europe and Australia on visual designs for other Tankard works.
Their joint contribution places "Wild Swans" firmly in the land
of the imagination. With projections that are magical in their kaleidoscopic
effects and lavishly detailed costumes, the visual effects left
me with the impression that I truly was visiting a fairy-tale kingdom.
Similarly, the original score by Elena Kats-Chernin is beautifully
crafted. With enough sparkle to support the make-believe theme yet
enough depth to carry the drama, Chernin has created a modern orchestral
soundscape which includes clacking knitting needles and operatic
"Wild Swans" holds true
to the traditional fairy-tale ballet formula in its structure and
story-line, but in her efforts to bring a slightly more modern style
of choreography to the work, Tankard has lost the clarity of expression
that exists in the classic works. The connection of the choreography
to the music is weak at times, which also creates problems with
clarity and makes the movement harder to watch.
Perhaps given more time
to develop and solidify the work, Tankard could have brought the
choreography up to a level that would make "Wild Swans" one of a
new generation of modern story ballets. As it stands, the clouded
and weak choreography is the only low point in a visually and aurally
beautiful work of theatre.
Chloe Smethurst is a freelance contemporary dancer and teacher
from Melbourne. She has worked with TasDance and Frances D'Ath's
Zero Ballet since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts
in 2001. She was recently the recipient of an Emerging Artist Grant
from the Australia Council for the Arts and is hoping to continue
her practice into the future.
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