Sunday, 17 July 2016
The Australian Ballet's Swan Lake - Murphy won me over
Standard YouTube Licence
The Australian Ballet, Swan Lake, Coliseum, 16 July 2016, 14:00
The synopsis in the programme notes were ominous as were some of the reviews in the papers and on BalletcoForum. A lot of parallels had been drawn between the plot of Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake and Prince Charles and Lady Di though Judith Mackrell thought the story saw closer parallels to Giselle (see Australian Ballet: Swan Lake review – a royal tragedy lifted by its leads 14 July 2016 The Guardian). It all sounded very like change for change's sake which I don't like very much at all (see Up the Swannee 17 March 2016). To my great surprise and delight I enjoyed Murphy's version despite the liberties that he took with the story and the score.
I think the reason why I liked Murphy's Swan Lake so much more than say David Nixon's is that it was a genuine variation upon a theme with some real innovation and not a completely different story with different characters albeit with some bits of Petipa and Ivannov's choreography such as the cygnets' dance bolted on. That was also true of David Dawson's Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet which I saw in Liverpool last month (see Empire Blanche: Dawson's Swan Lake 4 June 2016). I hesitate to use the expression "traditional Swan Lake" because ballets evolve over time and Geraldine Morris reminded us in Tell Tale Steps 2 that there wasn't much Petipa or Ivanov in the Swan Lake that she danced in the 1960s but if we take Anthony Dowell's production for the Royal Ballet as the meme Murphy did not stray all that far from it.
The plot of Dowell's Swan Lake and of every similar version is Siegfried's betrayal of Odette. Murphy explored that theme as did Dawson though their Odettes were very different. I have to say that I prefer Dawson's as his Odette is nobody's victim but Murphy's is interesting all the same. She is head over heals in love with her husband but he still hankers after another (hence the parallels with Lady Di). When she realizes that her marriage is somewhat crowded she flirts with just about everything in trousers and creates a terrible scene which ends in her committal to a psychiatric hospital beside a lake staffed by nurses who appear to be members of a religious order with a scary swan like headgear (a bit like the Ursuline sisters though I had always thought they were a teaching order). I think it must be the mad scene that reminded Mackrell of Giselle though Siegfried's philandering reminded me more of James's two timing of Effie and the sylph in La Sylphide. During her stay in the hospital Odette imagines herself swimming on the waters of the lake with its swans and Siegfried coming to look for her.
Odette recovers her sanity. She gatecrashes a party given by Odile where Siegried sees Odette in a new light and falls in love with her. This time it is Odile who loses herself in a frenzy of jealousy. She summonses the psychiatrist and scary nurses but Odette scarpers with Siegfried and the whole court scouring the countryside for her. I should point out that Odile is never referred to as such in the programme. She is called "Baroness von Rothbart" but that is not such a big departure as it sounds for Odile is Rothbart's daughter in the Dowell version. There is no Rothbart as such but his function is served by a lugubrious psychiatrist in charge of the psychiatric hospital.
There are some interesting transpositions. It is Odette and not Odile who dances fouettés in the mad scene. The music that announces Rothbart and Odile's arrival in the black act of Dowell announces Odette's presence at the Baroness's party. Odile prowls outside the hospital looking pointedly at her watch as Siegfried visits his wife just as Odette flutters outside the palace as Siegfried declares his love for Odile in Dowell's version. Both Dowell and Murphy end with Odette jumping in the lake. There is a dramatic epaulement in Murphy when Odette and Siegfried spot each other for one last time before Odette is dragged down into the deep taking the draperies representing the water with her.
Several commentators talked about Murphy's use of contemporary dance. I didn't see all that much contemporary as opposed to classical vocabulary and what I did see seemed to work very well. For instance, I liked some of the more unconventional lifts very much indeed as well as steps that gave the impression of skating. Having nearly killed myself as a 66 year old Rumpole trying to learn the cygnets' and Hungarian dances and swans' entry at the KNT Swan Lake intensive last year I was pleased to find that they were all there and not too different from the versions that Jane Tucker had taught us unlike Dawson's where the cygnets became a pas de quatre.
For all its cleverness Murphy's Swan Lake would have been nothing without some excellent dancers. Robyn Hendricks was a perfect fit for Murphy's Odette. Tall and commanding but also delicate and vulnerable she was as great an actor as she was a dancer. The expression "dance-actors" is often used by critics but except for Ed Watson I could think of very few people who merited the description. Ms. Hendricks is certainly one who does. She was matched by Amy Harris as Baroness Rothbart who was captivating in the jealousy scene. Earlier this year I saw Ted Brandsen's Mata Hari in Amsterdam (see Brandsen's Masterpiece 14 Feb 2016). That dance is how I imagine Mata Hari in real life. Partnering both Odette and Odile magnificently. Rudy Hawkes was a great Siegfried. Murphy's Siegfried is a complex character. Not a complete bastard despite the way he treated Odette though someone who needed chastisement. Hawke understood his character well. Every Swan Lake needs what the Bolshoi call an "evil genius" and that lot fell to Tristram Message as the psychiatrist. Not as big a role as Dowell's Rothbart but just as important to the story.
Looking through the dancers' bios I notice that nearly all of them come from Australia and many of them were trained at the Australian Ballet School. Given its relatively small population, the existence of two other fine companies in Brisbane and Perth and the fact that it continues to export fine dancers like Steven McRae and Jenna Roberts to us, Australia's contribution to dance is massive. I shall return to London for Cinderella next week and I am looking forward to it tremendously.