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Photo by Evan Li
Photo by Evan Li
Swan Lake - The Royal NZ Ballet
Choreographer: Russell Kerr
Composer: Tchaikowsky
Designer: Kristian Fredrickson
Featuring the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 18 Jul 2013 to 27 Jul 2013
[3 hours]

Reviewed by Lyne Pringle, 20 Jul 2013

Russell Kerr comes onto the stage in the curtain call for the 60th anniversary season of Swan Lake by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. The cast salute him as do members of the audience – some on their feet. 

He is 83 with a walking stick, vibrant and slightly stooped. He has endured, as has his choreography, this is the third time this sparkling version has been mounted on the company. 50 years ago he was the director of a fledgling company, today as then it is a resplendent tour de force of local and international talent: it is so fitting that Russell Kerr's choreography (after Petipa and Ivanov) should mark this celebration and honouring of dance pioneers in New Zealand. There are many artists who have toiled, on stage and back stage, over the years to make a season like this possible.

Swan Lake is a love story and a battle between good and evil, purity and deceitful manipulation, the ethereal versus the material world. The story is derived from Russian folk tales with the central image of the swan having deep resonances in that culture. The score by Tchaikovsky is famous and rightly so, it creates a beautiful frame for this magic to happen. Dripping in hyper-romance, Swan Lake is a perfect vehicle for a night of opulent production elements and potentially a deep emotional connection with the plight of the characters.

The work revolves around the artistry of the central figures of Prince Siegfried, his love interest Odette, and her nemesis Odile.

In Act I we are introduced to Siegfried's world.  The production elements from the 2007 version still impress “We are transported back in time to a beautifully realized picture book setting: set and costumes lavishly designed by the celebrated Kristian Fredrikson, lighting designed by Jon Bushwell” (2007 review).  The costumiers and scenography painters, who realize this vision, are highly skilled artists in their own right.

This prince, guest artist Karel Cruz, has a whimsical, vulnerable character, almost diffident. He is statuesque, with elegant legs that go on for ever as the peasants of the village dance exuberantly around him. Mr Kerr has added swirling circular patterns here to evoke the bustle of this community. A joyous bouncy jester (Rory Fairweather-Neylan) and sparkling trio (Lucy Green, Tonia Locker, Arata Miyagawa) fail to alter his mood as he yearns for a love that this world cannot fulfil.  The company is in fantastic form, dancing with passion and generosity.

Eventually this lonely prince finds his way into the wilderness, presumably to hunt, but his encounter with - Odette- a woman cursed into the body of swan- changes everything.

Act II - Night falls and enchantment happens.

One of the key elements of this act is the performance of the corps de ballet as Odette's kin. Here the dedication and skill of ballet mistress Turid Revfeim and ballet master Martin Vedel come to the fore, this flock of swans are brilliant. The cygnets are precise and dynamic and the big swans lyrical and expansive.

Gillian Murphy is a principal guest artist with the company and this is cause for celebration. She is sublime and utterly convincing as the timid swan/woman with a bravura display of technique and heartfelt acting. Her double pirouette into a 3rd turn with side backbend is extraordinary.

Eventually she yields to the advances of the prince, and the chemistry between these two dancers starts to take hold. In the famous love duet from this act, principal violin for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Vesa-Matti Leppanen plays in a way that supports the special quality of this moment and the reason why this classic prevails.  A hush falls on the theatre.  Ms Murphy's foot trembles against her ankle as she pirouettes, held with one hand by Mr Cruz, and the duet comes to a close. These characters are smitten and hold our hearts in their dancing souls.

The NZSO is wonderful under the baton of Nigel Gaynor as the rich score by Tchaikovsky swells and recedes throughout this long evening of dance. It is a marathon of the artistic world.

Act III again has sumptuous production elements and fantastic variations. Lucy Balfour, Dimitri Kleioris and Helio Lima smoulder as the Spaniards. Clytie Campbell, Brendan Bradshaw and Jacob Chown are Hungarian and sensuous. Adriana Harper and Medhi Angot are vibrant as the Neopolitans.

Rothbert, suitably malign, appears in the best coat ever made to conjure his daughter Odile in the guise of Odette to seduce Siegfried.

Gillian Murphy is once again outstanding, completely transformed from the lithe and trembling Odette into a serpentine temptress. She tends to draw out sequences and use her focus and eye-line to great effect,  to draw the audience into the palm of her articulate hand. The drama of the scene sizzles with virtuoso variations, even some extra arms thrown into the famous fouette sequence.

Back at the lakeside, the story is wrapped up with the lovers reconciled, and we are left with enduring images of a strong production.

Cause for celebration indeed that brave and dedicated artists continue to wrestle with this most demanding of art forms and to bring it to the stage in New Zealand.

For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Ann Hunt (The Dominion Post);
 Jennifer Shennan
 Toby Behan
 Raewyn Whyte
 Raewyn Whyte