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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 Jennifer Shennan, 29 Jul 2013

We are in our seats at St.James Theatre, for a matinee of Swan Lake. This is a re-staging of the 1996 production by Russell Kerr (named an Icon by the Arts Foundation: never was a title better ascribed.) The Wellington season (dedicated to the memory of stalwart arts protagonist, Richard Campion) ends after curtain down tonight, and pack-out will commence for their national tour that continues until early September.

The Company's survival for 60 years, against various negative forces that more than once tried to close it down, could itself be choreographed. Russell Kerr would probably lend the title from one of his own earlier works … Scripting the Dreams.

Amid the sounds of the orchestra warming up in the pit, it's the wailing oboes that seem to presage the enormity of the four-act saga that is about to get under way.  Despite our familiarity with Tchaikovsky's composition, we still thrill to the sublime colours and qualities in the score. We know about the violin solo that will play in an hour or so.   My 5 year old companion is hearing this music for the first time, and whispers, “Is a harp always that beautiful?”  (She has already asked “Is this story really, really true … like really, true life?” What should I tell her?)

Is Swan Lake a romantic telling of a remote German legend about the power of good love countering evil addiction? of wounded women living half-lives? a bully, von Rothbart, habituated to cruelly maltreating others and deceiving those around him with disguises? Is all of it drawn from far away 19th century Europe?

The best choreography is allegorical, and themes in ballet's settings can sometimes take on stark significance in the light of contemporary events. Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies, to Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, deeply moving at the best of times, became achingly more so in the days following the tragedy in 1966 of the collapse of a coal slagheap at Aberfan, Wales, that killed an entire school of children.  Audiences were awash throughout Rambert Dance Company's performances of the ballet at the time.

Ireland's theatre ensemble of genius, Fabulous Beast, dedicated their remarkable Giselle (staged at an International Arts Festival here, 2008) to the Irish girl who was found dead, her stillborn infant alongside, in front of a forest grotto of the Virgin … witness to the undoing that some Albrecht by another name had visited on her.

Just this week in Ohio, a criminal was sentenced to “life imprisonment plus 1000 years”, in a plea bargain that saved him from the death penalty. He had incarcerated three women in his house for years, raped and assaulted them, fathered a child by one of them. When he asked if he could see “his” child before descending to prison, the judge replied a resounding, disgusted “Never”, but did not address him by what could well have been his real name, Baron von Rothbart.

It is the dancers' challenge to portray their roles in specific ways within a production yet also offer resonance of wider readings. We are not here to count fouettes or applaud the height of jetes, so much as to gauge a dancer's interpretation, through those technical feats, of the emotional experiences of character. Fiction? Maybe.  Really true life? Maybe.

There have been three alternate casts in the lead and solo roles so far this season.  Gillian Murphy as Odette / Odile, partnered by Cuban dancer Karel Cruz as Siegfried, have set a sublime performance in our memory.  Lucy Green, with Kohei Iwamoto, taking these roles for the first time, are beautifully partnered and move us beyond words.  Abigail Boyle and Qi Huan have a depth and honesty in their shared emotion that we drink deeply from. It is a mark of strength of this relatively small company that it can offer alternate casts of such calibre. Russell Kerr is renowned for the encouragement and space he gives to dancers to develop roles in the way they themselves can believe in.   

At the recent launch of the book, Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty, many told an anecdote from past decades. They were mostly about wardrobe malfunctions, or of mid-performance hitches that require all the dancers' resourcefulness and quick wits to carry on, mostly without the audience knowing anything was amiss (unless the scenery had caught fire, or an earthquake required evacuation of the building.)

It's of course always easier to remember the one-offs. It's not that we want the bad news … it just is intriguing to know how people cope with the unexpected, and still keep their calm.  It also means that on all ten thousand and one nights, when nothing did go wrong, a beautiful poetry of emotion has entered our kinaesthetic experience. That lasts forever, and becomes a part of us.

Fortunately the golden glow of dawn light filtering onto the final scene allows the reading that Odette and Siegfried have gone to a beautiful place, after the dreaded von Rothbart has lost all his power over them, and drowned in the lake. So it's “Yes my dear … it's a bit like really true life. Good friends are better than bullies, and always win in the end.”
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:
 Lyne Pringle
 Ann Hunt (The Dominion Post);
 Toby Behan
 Raewyn Whyte
 Raewyn Whyte