Black Swan, White Swan

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

27/06/2019 - 29/06/2019

ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

20/06/2019 - 22/06/2019

Regent On Broadway, Palmerston North

12/06/2019 - 12/06/2019

Opera House, Wellington

31/05/2019 - 02/06/2019

Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, Auckland

07/06/2019 - 09/06/2019

Regent Theatre, The Octagon, Dunedin

05/07/2019 - 06/07/2019

Baycourt - Addison Theatre, Tauranga

15/06/2019 - 16/06/2019

Production Details

Love. Seduction. Betrayal. Redemption.

Temptation is in the air this winter, can you feel it? 

Step into the shadows to witness one man’s struggle with love and betrayal as the Royal New Zealand Ballet presents Mário Radačovský’s Black Swan, White Swan, a daring retelling of ballet’s most enduring classic, Swan Lake.

A deeply personal take on the classic love story, we follow Siegfried, tormented by sickness, battling his mortality. Caught between two women, the black swan and the white, he struggles with ideal love, pure evil, temptation, and most of all, himself.

Hailed on its 2012 premiere as ‘beguiling, captivating, ultimately enigmatic’ (Grand Rapids Press), this 21st century version of the story will have you spellbound. A stripped down, elemental retelling of Swan Lake, with the agony and ecstasy of Tchaikovsky’s original score at its heart, Black Swan, White Swan will break your heart, yet leave you believing in the redeeming power of love.

This stylish, provocative, profoundly moving ballet is not to be missed – this is a Swan Lake for our time.

Black Swan, White Swan contains mature themes and is recommended for children 8 years and above.

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Dance-theatre , Dance , ,

2 hours

Glorious flair

Review by Hannah Molloy 07th Jul 2019

A reimagining of a treasured classic can be daunting, both for those offering it and for the audience receiving it. The Royal New Zealand Ballet presents Black Swan White Swan by Mario Radacovsky with the glorious flair that both the original and the new deserve.

The measured stateliness of the opening segues into a delightful flirtation with the Regent Theatre’s lush velvet curtain and into the faintly erotically charged late-in-the-party scene of Siegfried’s (Joseph Skelton) birthday.

Skelton is the scaffold of this performance, fluctuating between a gentle presence and a fierce energy. He is almost unbelievably strong, his lifts and leaps apparently effortless, repeated and held with no sign of tension in his body. Siegfried appears a litle daffy, reminiscent of Hugh Grant, but with depth and character. His foil Rothbart, Kihiro Kusukami, is incredible to watch and so proud of his beautiful coat. I overheard him described as a ‘ninja’ and a ‘whippet’ both of which resonated, his confidence and style eyecatching and his interpretation of the bad guy role deeply attractive.

Mayu Tanigaito as always fills the stage, the other dancers becoming her props, her back drop. As the Black Swan, She’s strong and elegant, with no fragility, just power and grace. Marie Varlet, as the White Swan is softer, dainty but still a force of her own.

 The details of the choreography are intriguing, a foot placed just so, cocked and twitched, the flick of a hand, the twist of a head, expansive footwork, and legs sleek and precise. The stylised shape of a swan is clever – it’s fascinating how clearly the dancers evoked swans at rest with such a simple pose. The movement is quirky and comical, and the dancers take the opportunity to flaunt their own personality through them.

The staging is minimal, matte black with crisp white neon juxtaposed against flashes of vermilion and fuchsia. The mirrored panels provide interest and texture to what could have been a too simple backdrop as well as subtle entry and exit points.

The scene without music is hypnotic. There’s such discomfort in silence, such a need to fill it with rustling and coughing (ever present in a winter show…). There’s no space in the silence for pretence or artifice or flaws, it’s unforgiving and dramatic. Skelton and Kusukami are brutal and vibrant.

There’s a necessary openness to imagination required for a performance like this. There’s the rigour of learning new movement to music that must trigger muscle memory, layering a contemporary physicality over the traditional formality, the joyousness of modern expressiveness versus the joy of perfecting the skills and constraint of classical choreography. There’s reflection and reflectiveness.


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Dancers shine with stripped back staging

Review by Andrew Shepherd 28th Jun 2019

Mário Radačovský’s Black Swan White Swan is not Swan Lake. Yes there are swans, a lake, and some of the world’s most loved and familiar music in the evocative score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. But this ballet is darker, more confronting, harder to unpack. Of course it is not a fair comparison: audiences and scholars (and yes – reviewers, too) feel we know Swan Lake. And so we come with expectations. These may best be put aside to truly enjoy Black Swan White Swan . . . And there is a lot to enjoy.

Act 1 is packed full of choreography, well executed with enthusiasm and panache. The repetition of Siegfried’s initial confrontation with the White Swan / doctor strongly sets the scene that we are dealing with something powerful and internal. It can take an audience a moment to assimilate an unfamiliar choreographic style: the exuberant party scene is mostly successful in allowing us time to do this, though some moves come across as caricature and out of place. The waltz works beautifully: this entire ballet is most successful when it allows the technique of the dancers to shine. The mannerisms and movements of swans have clearly been studied. They are evoked through the occasional use of flexed feet, arms and hands as wings and necks /heads, and gestures of rustling feathers and nesting.  While I can see why the swan’s hair is worn loose with the complementary movements of grooming, it becomes distracting at times when spread across the dancers faces.

Kihiro Kusukami – as Von Rothbart – dances a standout role with seemingly effortless grace and weightless ballon.  Sara Garbowski – in the role of White Swan – demonstrates outstanding musicality and an exquisite beauty of line that are a joy to watch. Partnered with grace and gravitas by Paul Matthews  (Siegfried), there is effortlessness and assurance the two bring to the complex shifts within many of the lifts. It provides a showcase for their dedication to technique and rehearsal.  Another highlight is the quartet of cygnets: a well thought out update of an enduring ballet favorite, that both dancers and audience appear to enjoy immensely.

There is a struggle inherent within many narrative ballets: progressing a storyline while demonstrating the technique and athleticism of the dancers. I feel this choreography is extremely successful at delivering on the second of these goals, but may require more work on the relationships between the central characters to help deliver the first. The relationships appear uncertain and unresolved, but perhaps this is the intent. Things can change rapidly as we process new information, and Siegfried certainly appears to be all over the place in his emotions and allegiance.

Choreographically, Act 2 comes across as more formulaic in style. Following the traditions of classical ballet, and led by the score, it intersperses solo with duet and trio, before reintroducing the corps. The formula gives Siegfried (Matthews) brief moments to reveal his abilities as a soloist, amongst his ongoing role as partner/frame/crane to his various co-stars. The Black Swan (Kirby Selchow) also gets a chance to shine in a way not allowed in the party scenes. There is an unrestrained joy in the fine execution of this part of her role, contrasting admirably to the conflicted sobriety of wife. The return of the White Swan however seems out of place, with too little previously seen chorography plonked on top of ill-fitting music.  The theatrical ending is puzzling, if  – like me – you fail to grasp its symbolism. The enthusiastic Christchurch audience on opening night appears to have no such reservations.

Slick, pared back staging lets the dancing be the star in a way that is largely successful in this production. The coloured LED strip lighting across the back of the cyclorama and the mirrored panels are effectively utilised to enhance the story as told by the choreography. However at certain times, some elements – for example coming forward of the theatre’s lush, red velvet curtains and then utilizing them as a prop –jar with the overall minimalist esthetic, and appear a little contrived.  Siegfried’s three-piece suit and von Rothbart’s frilled jacket seem out of place: visually too heavy and overwhelming when compared with the stripped back swans. The clean lines and bare feet on the swans were particularly effective in allowing full enjoyment of the choreographic lines and its execution by the dancers’ young strong athletic bodies. I did feel that the layered underwear appearance of the white swans’ costumes would be even more effective if stripped back to the clean elegance achieved with the Black Swan’s costume.

Reinventing a classic is no easy task, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Choreographically, I wish Radačovský had pushed more boundaries in throwing off the traditional structure of the ballet: either sticking with his original intention to present just duets, or conversely mixing up the music and utilising the male corps more.  However I also think the Royal New Zealand Ballet – and in particular Artistic Director Patricia Barker – should be commended for programming a tour of this thought provoking re-staging of such a much-loved ballet. Like much successful art, it is accessible, offering a variety of entry points for the audience to engage and unpack its story, symbolism, and artistry. It provides a strong showcase for a talented and diverse company to demonstrate their technical prowess and dual roles as artists and entertainers. It invites new audiences for a traditional art form while challenging the existing audience to keep looking and questioning. Well done, and keep up the good work.


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Intimate couplings, confusion and hallucinations

Review by Jenny Stevenson 21st Jun 2019

In his re-telling of the story of the incomparable romantic ballet Swan Lake, guest Czech choreographer Mário Radačovský has mined his own personal experience as a cancer survivor to infuse the tale with a psychological complexity that supersedes the magical machinations of the original. In the resulting contemporary ballet work, Black Swan White Swan, Siegfried is no longer a prince and the swans, both black and white, are women who are transformed into the elegant birds as a result of Siegfried’s confusion and hallucinations while grappling with his illness.

In this scenario, Rothbart is not an evil magician but rather appears to represent both Siegfried’s alter-ego and the malignancy of the debilitating cancer.  The White Swan is the caring female doctor who offers him a chance of salvation while the Black Swan, also Siegfried’s wife, who in the original Swan Lake seduces Siegfried at the behest of Rothbart, appears in this version to have betrayed him, as she embraces the dark side representing the disease.

This work was first commissioned by Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Artistic Director Patricia Barker in 2012, for her former company Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan, USA.  It represents a style of dance that owes much to the innovative work of Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián, with whom Radačovský has worked.  Kylián has stated that his primary focus as a choreographer is to explore “what it is to be human” and this ethos is obviously central to the creation of Radačovský’s Black Swan White Swan. 

To achieve this, Radačovský has eschewed pointe shoes and dressed his characters in suits and dresses. The fourteen white swans of the corps-de-ballet are womanly, dressed in form-fitting white boy-shorts and leotards with their hair loosely flowing as they move.  The result is clarity of line and a celebration of diversity so that each swan is their own person – not moulded in an attempt to create uniform beings.

Principal dancer Paul Mathews dances with outstanding stamina as Siegfried, virtually never leaving the stage and performing a series of lifts with all three characters, with seeming ease and a lightness of being.  His portrayal of confusion in the face of adversity is entirely convincing and his love duets with White Swan, danced by Sara Garbowski are tender and compelling.  When dancing with the Black Swan performed by Kirby Selchow he portrays a subtle withdrawal not quite buying into the overt seduction.

Garbowski captures the ethereal quality of otherness in her sensitive portrayal of White Swan.  She is articulate in her placing, never faltering in the continuous flow of movement inherent in the intimate couplings of Radačovský’s choreography. Selchow is an elegant presence as both Siegfried’s wife and the duplicitous Black Swan draping herself over Rothbart with a cultivated languor and tantalising Siegfried with her brazen flirtation.

Kihiro Kusukami is an animated Rothbart spritely, teasing and malevolent in turn.  The duets between him and Siegfried are sparring power struggles between equals, with Rothbart always bouncing back to goad Siegfried, attempting each time to vanquish him.

Radačovský uses an elegant form of shorthand to depict the swans, with the arm fully extended like a neck and the hand arched into the shape of a swan’s head.  It forms the signature movement of the choreographic vocabulary, alongside the flexed foot and rippling swan arms.

The set design by Marek Holly is a significant force in the work with a lit, suspended door-frame providing the portal into a world of otherness and the mirrored booths upstage, distorting all images to create a sense of confusion.  The lighting design by Randall G Chiarelli particularly the neon pink of the opening scene and the audio visual design by Michael Auer contribute greatly to the momentum and style of the work.

The ballet is a creation of originality and impact, tackling as it does the starkness of mankind’s struggle against forces that cannot always be contained.


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Angles of vision

Review by Mona Williams 16th Jun 2019

Read the review in Danz Magazine


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Cancer a credible force in reimagined classic ballet

Review by Tania Kopytko 14th Jun 2019

“Reimaging Swan Lake for our time” is the phrase used in the promotional material for Black Swan, White Swan, the current Royal New Zealand Ballet production. Swan Lake was first performed by our ballet company in 1953. Since then, it has been performed many times as a classic ballet, but in this version the narrative is not traditional and the vocabulary is contemporary.

This version uses the Tchaikovsky score but Czech choreographer, Mário Radačovský, creates a complex story which draws on his own life experiences. I found that, because this work stands beside such well-known traditional versions, I needed to read the programme explanation as aspects of the narrative were not clear, especially in respect to the swans’ roles.

It is the males, Siegfried and Rothbart, who are the main characters in the drama, rather than the swans, who, in this instance are Siegfried’s wife (the black swan) and his doctor (the white swan). Rothbart is not an evil magician; he is Siegfried’s illness and his alter ego. Radačovský had himself suffered from cancer and it was while in hospital battling the disease that he observed swans on a lake from his window and he promised himself, if he survived, he would create a ballet about them.

This work is electrifying because of the powerful relationship between Siegfried (Laurynas Vėjalis) and Rothbart (Shaun James Kelly) who both dance their roles superbly. Kelly leaps and clings to Vėjalis like an octopus with mean intent. It is clear that his control and taunting is much more personal. For anyone who has known cancer, this is an entirely convincing narrative. The power of this and the torture of poor Siegfried as he tries to make sense of his illness and radically change his life, is credible. However, the long spaces where Seigfried has to gaze in space towards the audience, in a clearly internally brooding manner, I do not find easy. But it is part of this work’s ability to make you think. You can not ignore it.

This, I feel, then places the roles of the swans in an interesting position within the narrative, a weaker position than in the traditional Swan Lake narrative. Caroline Wiley is wonderful as Siegfried’s wife (the black swan). She is very loving in Act 1 at Seigfried’s birthday party, but also sexy and beguiling in Act 2. Wiley dances superbly throughout the entire work with exquisite technique and expression. The role of the white swan, danced beautifully by Madeleine Graham, is different, because she is the doctor who informs Seigfried of the devastating health news. She is in a different position vis a vis the black swan.

At times I feel the narrative intention for the swans becomes somewhat muddled, between this new narrative and the subtle references in the work to the traditional roles of the black and white swans and the role of the corps de ballet swans. But in the bigger picture the work holds together and provides the audience with plenty to think about and enjoy. It is an abstract and emotional work, which also has lightness, and subtle humour as well.

The movement vocabulary is quirky, dynamic and physical and, at times, amusing as Radačovský uses a variety of dance styles to convey scenes – such as tango or dance party grooving, as well as a lovely contemporary vocabulary. It is enjoyable to see the corps de ballet “morph” from one scene into the next through subtle changes in movement and space. Particularly clever and quirky are the swans’ floor poses, the pointy swan-head hand and the crossed feet looking exactly like a flock of swans on a lake. The company performs beautifully throughout and are on the top of their game.

There are times when I expect more of the choreography, given the capability of the choreographer. Occasionally in Act one the corps’ work was a little repetitive and the four swans are not the tour de force choreographically that perhaps they could have been. All the duo work is fantastic, especially the lifts and dives. Often these are a kind of inversion of what you might see in a traditional version and they provide another intriguing element to the work. The spectacular lifts are repeated in the stunning, visceral duo work between Vėjalis and Kelly as their relationship grows more intense. In Act 2 their intense struggle is a remarkable technical and theatrical tour de force.

The set (Marek Holly), lighting (Randall G Chiarelli) and audio visual design (Michael Auer) is wonderful and gives much to the production, creating the hip bright pink party mood and, through the reflective flexible mirror panels, with subtle lighting, creating a wonderful changing backdrop from a murky lake to a golden, rich, distorted reflection of the theatre’s chandeliers.

Costumes, designed by Artistic Director Patricia Barker, fit the roles. The male dancers’ suits are integral to their stronger power role. The jackets are used effectively as part of the narrative. The swans’ costumes are plain and unusual and seem to weaken the female image, by today’s standards. However, their tight white short-legged leotard shape does allow a clear outline of the floor-based, quirky swan shape.

It has been said that a local ballet audience are more traditional and don’t like change, but Wednesday night’s full audience clearly were happy with this new version. This is a brave and personal piece of choreography using a very familiar grand ballet musical score. It was given a huge response at the end. The words “stunning” and “amazing” could be heard from audience members.


Editor June 19th, 2019

Here is the link to Tania’s chat with Jesse about BLACK SWAN, WHITE SWAN on RNZ Afternoons.

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The ugliness of life unrequited

Review by 08th Jun 2019

In an age of insecurity, great classical ballets and other great art works, are a way of centring the soul. Swan Lake is synonymous with the permeance of the soul in my theatregoer mind. In the programme, Black Swan White Swan is named as a “Swan Lake for our times”. As soul food, Black Swan White Swan by Slovak choreographer, Mário Radačovský is precarious, more of today, eclectic and uncertain. There are few defining connections to greatness in a classical sense in this work and they are mostly reliant on familiarity, with the resurrection of genius that is ensconced in the algorithm of Tchaikovsky ‘s composition recorded for the opening night.

In Black Swan White Swan, there is meandering between the real live despondency of Siegfried and a reflective narcissism played out through subtly gendered couplings of each duet or trio. The main cast, Paul Mathews (Siegfried), Massimo Margaria (Rothbart), Catherine Minor (White Swan) and Nadia Yanowsky (Black Swan) all dance wonderfully across the ballet’s dreamy alteration. However, ultimate passion, bound in their traditional roles, is at odds with heterogeneity. By frequently turning towards the audience across the proscenium and expressionless faces, elegantly trained bodies reveal some complex questions. The dancers all seem somewhat perplexed, challenged even to emote a new allegory across the antique score.

Adroit dance moves are combined as choreography and visually interesting duets evoke the playful imaginary. There are many moments of classical harmony. Each precisely performed sequence is as clearly enjoyable to the corps of dancers, whether it is in the frolicking group work or the flip-flop between styles of Gatsby, tango, contemporary floorwork and straight out balletic lyrical moments. There are extended sequences of partner work, with the corps of male dancers particularly adept and tight in their formations.

Costuming by Artistic Director, Patricia Barker, highlight a classical disconnection. Siegfried wears a grey business suit throughout the night. While male dancers are in black dance attire to match their actions, the swap between white tunics and hot pants for the female dancers is quite confusing. In as much as it is costumes’ function to express character and situation, it is in the females (pre-swan) dressing where I find myself caught in expectation. In the costumes abandoning of connection to the classical, feminine consciousness becomes oddly reminiscent of awkward dancer aspiration recently witnessed in our local TV show, Dancing with the Stars.

With mixed messages of genre, gender, era or plot in the choreography, the mise-en-scene becomes the means to depict the dancerly narrative: space, place and time. The setting takes on an active role. A curiously moveable door shape with fluorescent lights hovers above the scene. Perhaps, as a symbolic deconstruction of the passage between the choreographer’s health journey and his reveries about swans, this is the least successful marker of an otherwise intriguing set design by Marek Holly. Malleable mirror strips at the back of the stage provide the requisite third dimension. This feature reflects ensemble purpose in a harmony of colour, bodies and light.

More connections to the dance in spatial setting are the watery images on the floor by A/V designer, Michael Auer and Randall G. Chiarelli’s buttery spotlights that highlight floor-based actions of the dancing swans. Another lighting design indicator is the cleverly placed central light that picks up the ugliness of life unrequited and simultaneously beauty, in one or two but not all muscling backs and shoulders of the chorus dancers.

In spite of the eclecticism of art’s intention, each different element promotes a certain honesty that defines the standards of the Royal New Zealand Ballet company. A lack of synchronicity between purpose and history does not therefore define this ballet’s production. The collaboration between crew and dancers brings about the soul of this work’s expression where the necessary complexity is then displayed as generosity in the performing roles.



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Interpretive re-invention

Review by Greer Robertson 01st Jun 2019

The only constant thing in life is change.   

Forced to face his own mortality while struggling with a life-threatening illness, choreographer Mario Radacovsky, a now 47-year old from the Czech Republic, vowed that at that time and upon his survival, things would change. Bed-ridden for six months some 20 years ago as a young man in his mid-twenties, Radacovsky lay motionless in bed allowing his creative brain to escape vivid reality. Black swans graced the pond outside his hospital window and inspirationally the age-old 1877 classic Swan Lake became the target for his escapism, reflection and interpretive re-invention, aligning his own life’s struggle and torment with the age-old enduring fairy fable.

RNZB Artistic Director Patricia Barker originally commissioned this version of Swan Lake for Grand Rapids Ballet US in 2012. Having been previously mounted in Europe and Asia, this 2-act production consists of an international line-up of artistic staff and dancers.  Now it’s on a nationwide New Zealand tour where the audiences are encouraged and challenged to take from it what they will.

Over time, I have had the privilege of experiencing many versions of Swan Lake either as a multi-role practitioner, viewer and reviewer of internationally renowned companies worldwide. Thus far, a truly memorable stand out for me and at the top of my personal list is Mathew Bourne’s then controversial version at Sadler’s Wells UK. In a similar time frame of some twenty years ago, then brave choreographers fashioned ambitious different designs on this classic. Bourne’s entire male cast of swans shocked audiences with verging on bizarre choreographic cleverness, wearing voluminous feather jodhpurs.

Before curtain up, I pause briefly for my own reflection on previous Swan Lake renditions classical or otherwise, good or not so good, recalling my response often with electrocuted senses. With Tchaikovsky’s gloriously passionate music, how could one not be moved?  

And so another fledgling this time for the kiwi stage, is flying into the limelight and is added to my reworked Swan Lake collection.

Feathers, tiaras, tutus and pointe shoes are out. Gone too is the ethereal, breathtakingly balletic awe of beauty and intrigue. In its place are ultra-abstract, angular, often ugly moves depicting the inner distressed feelings and torment of characters.  The company of 24 dancers onstage throw themselves into the repeated physical demands starting thankfully with a more light-hearted frolicking royal birthday party opening. Static, stark imagery of non-traditional neon strip lighting fill the near-naked stage.

Not long into the first act, I ask myself is it the choreographers intent to minimalise the beauty of the natural female form by at times shaping the women in indecorous positions whilst wearing unflattering body hugging white lycra bike pants? In direct contrast however, the securely clothed men exude male superiority while wearing suits. Questionable food for thought in this day and age, I say.

So before our eyes, Black Swan, White Swan unfolds as a contemporary ballet of contrast with sometimes well-thought out quirky movement idiosyncrasies coupled with extreme physical demands on the dancers. The story revolves around Siegfried, a pivotal main role normally given to a female as everything hinges on his dream and voyage of self-discovery. The 3 piece tweed, shirt and tie wearing prince danced by Paul Mathews struggles to come to terms with ideal love, evil and temptation.  Mathews’ partnering strength is to be congratulated for the intricate difficult lifts with male alter ego Rothbart consummately and precisely performed by Kihiro Kusukami. However, Mathews’ inability to ace his double tours and pirouettes in this large principal role left me wanting.

With slippery, fluid finesse Kirby Selchow as Siegfried’s wife and eventual Black Swan, shines. Nurse turned White Swan danced by Sara Garbowski is articulate in every way and also shines. The traditional vignettes of Cygnets and Big Swans are delightfully different upon presentation and the corps give their all as the re-imagined story unfolds.

Conventional it’s not. It’s heavy if you want it to be. Thought-provoking it is.

The New Zealand premiere night audience receive it well and I have another version of Swan Lake to add to my collection.


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