The Australian Ballet Returns to The Big Apple With 'Swan Lake'

By Christine Jowers
Originally published on Dance Enthusiast

Prologue: A Brief History of Swan Lake

As Graeme Murphy, choreographer for The Australian Ballet, said in a recent company podcast interview, "You can't avoid Swan Lake, can you? You're sure to run into it somewhere in you're life. You'd have to be on Mars not to be exposed to it."

Swan Lake Old School

The story of Swan Lake is that of a prince who needs to find a wife. His mother, the queen of all the land, thinks it's high time. Prince Siegfried, then falls in love with a beautiful girl named Odette, only to discover she lives under the spell of an evil wizard, Baron Von Rothbart. Odette’s curse is to be a swan by day and a woman at night. Her fate can only be changed by true love, but if that true love is betrayed, Odette, also known as “the white swan,” will be forced to be a bird on a lake forever. The evil and unflappable wizard ,Von Rothbart, apparently also a control freak, does not wish to see his spell broken. He attempts to trick Prince Siegfried into marrying Odile, a virtual twin of Odette, also known as “the black swan" and, did I mention, the evil doer's daughter. The trickery almost succeeds until Siegfried, too late, realizes he is being fooled. Immediately the prince runs to the side of his distraught Odette, who is dying. The only alternative for the couple is to commit suicide. In death, they can finally be united.


The Australian Ballet's Swan Lake, choreographed by Graeme Murphy; Photo by Jeff Busby

Swan Fever

For 117 years the ballet world has been going swan crazy. Though the original 1877 version of "Swan Lake," commissioned for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow -- music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreography by the German ballet master ,Julius Reisinger -- was proclaimed a dud, the 1895 revamp fared much better. In 1895, at the Maryiinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia -- with Tchaikovsky's music revised by Riccardo Drigo (as Tchaikovsky had died in 1893) and new choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov -- the ballet captured the hearts and imaginations of its audiences. The romantic, other-worldly love story was also enhanced by a beautiful star ballerina, Pierina Legnani. Legnani set the bar for all ballerina swans of the future by performing ,the now legendary, technical feat of 32 fouettes. (Fouettes are a series of successive whipping turns performed on one foot, on pointe.)

Choreographers continue to play with different versions of the basic tale: sad endings; happy endings; one woman dancing both Odette and Odile; two women taking on each role separately; two warlocks; all male casts as in Matthew Bourne's production; acrobatic swans in the Guandong Acrobatic Troupe's version, and riotous send-ups by dance companies like Ballet Trockadero and TV comedians,like Jim Carrey. The movie world jetéd into the action with Darren Aronofsky's "The Black Swan" but before even the movie, a sign that Swan Lake had truly immersed itself into popular culture -- Swan Barbie.

The Australian Ballet's Version -- Now for Something Completely Different

For the first time in North America, audiences will be able to experience Graeme Murphy's award-winning interpretation. Murphy's "Swan Lake," originally created in 2002, for the ballet company's 40th Anniversary, is loosely based on the Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Camilla Parker Bowles saga. Apparently there is no Odile, and instead of an evil wizard lurking about with a wicked daughter, there is a Baroness Von Rothbart, the princes' older, former lover who taunts the young bride, Odette. Instead of a case of mistaken identity and deception, we are presented with a conflicted, love triangle and the psychological effects of this situation on a young bride.


Adam Bull and Amber Scott in Swan Lake, choreographed by Graeme Murphy; Photo by Jim McFarlane

Murphy, in the same Australian Ballet podcast quoted earlier, says his work was never "set out to shock." He points out that he wanted to "freshen up" the story and characterizations so that audiences would feel not "as if they are looking on something from a distance." He wants viewers of his "Swan Lake" to be able to become as emotionally involved in the story as the dancers are. When working with his Australian dancers, Murphy spoke with them about their "motivation" more than their technique. Fortunate to be working with a company that has stellar classical training, he wanted to concentrate on feeling, not positions, "the humanity is so important."

Amber Scott, Ballerina with the Australian Ballet on Graeme Murphy's "Swan Lake":

Swan Lake from The Dance Enthusiast on Vimeo.

What will New Yorkers think?

Says Scott, "New Yorkers are so in touch with what is going on with the arts and are culturally excited and passionate. I am sure we will be received with open arms and interesting opinions."