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REVIEW: Swan Lake | Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney

Choreographer Stephen Baynes wisely doesn’t mess with a classic in The Australian Ballet’s 50th year. But this new production is oddly devoid of passion.

Dancers in Swan Lake | Joan Sutherland Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

I think it was Pierre Cardin that said style never goes out of fashion. Or perhaps he was paraphrasing Coco Chanel. I can’t quite recall. It may be a truism, but it pertains to ballet and other things as well. It’s to a matter of conservatism, but of classicism. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for invention, reinvention and even radicalism as approaches to classical ballet. But every now and then, a merely tweaked production is just the ticket, where the concentration is predominantly on excellence of execution and reanimation of traditional ideas; with the smallest of spaces devoted to contemporaneous interpolations, interpretations, leanings and nuances.

Choreographer Stephen Baynes has fulfilled this brief with panache on behalf of The Australian Ballet, with a fresh, but traditional look at Swan Lake, indubitably the world’s best-loved ballet, bar none. It seems like a fittingly dignified decision for the AB’s 50th anniversary, too.

From the opening moments, Kevin Jackson’s theatrical ability is on show: as the prince, Siegfried, he looks distracted and uneasy; not yet bewitched, but bothered and bewildered. He is of course grieving still, even after all these years, for his father and, presumably, harbours some apprehension about his imminent ascension to the throne and the heavy attendant expectations and responsibilities. Interestingly, Jackson’s dance parts, for much of this ballet, are quite minimal, by comparison to his dramatic ones. But when he does dance, it’s with impeccable and occasionally breathtaking precision.

When we first encounter the somewhat melancholic birthday boy, Siegfried (although thankfully not as poisonously so as, say, Hamlet), he is on a terrace, by a lake. One can’t help but feel, as a right royal misfit, he might’ve been more at home with Diana. If only fiction could segue into faction. (Of course, Graeme Murphy made play of this in his reinvention in the early naughties.)

Set (and costume) designer Hugh Colman and lighting designer Rachel Burke have conspired to have the lake glimmer and shimmer, like Christmas tinsel. Children of all ages are sure be enchanted. Colman’s costumes are superb and he’s exploited some distinctive facets of the spectrum; pastel pinks, blues and greens among them. His restraint with the lamentation of swans happily averts an excessive explosion of meringue. Together with Baynes, the designers (including projection designer and director Domenico Bartolo) have contrived an elegant, deeply romantic aesthetic which complements Tchaikovsky’s score, inasmuch as being a visual expression of it. Bartolo’s contribution will please generations more au fait with computer animation than theatre and hopefully assist them to better appreciate that latter.

It seems to me that so much is made of the surface of Swan Lake, insofar as the fragile feminine beauty of the regatta of swans, that the symbolism is too often dwarfed, forgotten or utterly lost. Baynes has, by contrast, underscored the entrapment of both Siegfried and Odette; but especially Siegfried, this being the watermark of Baynes’ reading. Siggy’s aversion to the pomp of the court is clear: he prefers the peace, quiet and seclusion of the lake; little wonder he should, tragically, fall for a swan. His is a disintegrating mind; here is a veritable Van Gogh. I’m reminded of Don McLean’s lyric “the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”; a mantra that might’ve equally applied to sensitive souls throughout the ages.

There are all sorts of threats to love, all kinds of von Rothbarts, evil sorcerers and spells set to break its fine bones, not the least being the merciless attrition of time and ever-present temptations of the flesh. There are many who would judge Siegfried’s infidelity with Odile, having pledged himself to Odette, but in (knowingly) succumbing to her charms he merely proves his human frailty and, in seeking Odette’s forgiveness and in her granting of it, both he and she are redeemed and released. If only we could transcend our more repugnant qualities (jealousy and revenge) to free ourselves in this way.

Though, in many respects and for much of the work, Baynes has held fast to the traditional (he’s especially faithful to Kirov in the second of the four acts), he’s ventured to make his mark with shapes and lines that are sometimes symmetrical, sometimes curvaceous and always classically simpatico. The lifts he has devised and dedicated in the first act seem to momentarily pause, mid-air, as if to imitate the rise and fall of a bird on the wing. In such moments, Baynes shows himself to be as sensitive as Siegfried.

Madeleine Eastoe’s Odette is technically flawless (her dizzying succession of turns was thrilling) but, more than this, she is the very epitome of a slender, graceful swan and as light as its feathers. It’s not only easy to fall in love with someone who dances this beautifully, it’s inevitable.

In this ballet, it’s mostly as it should be: those who are the key protagonists shine brightest; namely Jackson and Eastoe. And yet, there are many very fine supports which go to raise the pillars of the work, including foreign princesses, lead swans, cygnets and Spanish dancers. My proclivity for Cossack dancing meant I was particularly invigorated by Brett Chynoweth and company’s scene.

I’m not sure what was up with Yosvani Ramos on opening night: his broad beam of a smile was in perfect working order, but he almost took a tumble at one or two points. Surprising. But nerves or exceedingly humid weather would be enough to excuse an ‘off’ night. In any case, I felt for him.

Ironically and somewhat mysteriously, however, it all seems just a little devoid of passion.

The details: Swan Lake plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until December 19. Tickets on the company website.

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