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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 strength.

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.

Unfortunately, from 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 voice.

"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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