Review | WA Ballet celebrate their 70th birthday with new take on ‘Swan Lake’

Swan Lake

Swan Lake | His Majesty’s Theatre | Until 11th Dec | ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Ballet often revisits the classics of the genre. Coppelia, Giselle, The Nutcracker, La Slyphide and Don Quixote are performed in repetition. It’s become common place to adjust the settings and stories to give fresh perspectives or add a local connection to the tales.

Over the years many different lenses have been added to these classics to allow us to view one more time, with an added layer of storytelling allowing us to revisit discussing, interrogating and debating the work’s core themes.

This practice of adaptation and reinvention is not unique to ballet, it’s common in operas and the works of Shakespeare too. It can however be a path fraught with danger. For every La Bohème reimagined in New York’s Chinatown, there a Macbeth set in outer space.

To celebrate the WA Ballet’s 70th year, their final production for the year is the work that is often cited as the pre-eminent ballet, Swan Lake. To give the work a new layer, the West Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director Aurélian Scannella has worked alongside local Indigenous elder Barry McGuire to fuse together a traditional Noongar story of black swans with the classical work. 

The last time I saw Swan Lake, it was the acclaimed gender-flip production from British choreographer Matthew Bourne, so with 15 years since my last exposure it was long enough for me to have completely forgotten the details of the original story, but the elements I clearly remembered were Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score, the ability of dance to mimic the movement of a swan, and an overwhelming feeling of romance. Expectations were high.   

Swan Lake

For this new version of the classic work an outstandingly talented group of collaborators has been assembled. Choreographer Krzysztof Pastor, who previous created the bold and mesmerising Dracula for the company, has returned to create this new work.

Also returning to the fold are set and costume designers Phil R. Daniels and Charles Cusick Smith who designed the stunning surrounds for Dracula and The Nutcracker. While impeccable lighting design has been created by Jon Buswell.  

They’ve collaborated with local artist Barry McGuire, theatre director Kyle Morrison and Gya Ngoop Keeninyarra (One Blood Dancers) to introduce an Indigenous storytelling thread into the work.

The origins of the Swan Lake story are unknown, possibly it’s an adaptation of a German folklore tale. Over the centuries the story has morphed, changed and been adapted many times.

The ballet usually follows the tale of a young prince who is under pressure from his family to wed. In the forest he comes across a flock of swans where he discovers one of the swans is actually a beautiful woman named Odette, she has been trapped in the form of the Swan by an evil sorcerer. He declares his love for her which should break the spell.  

Later at a ball where he is expected to choose a bride, the young prince meets a woman named Odile, who looks a lot like Odette. He agrees to marry the woman who looks remarkably like the woman he met in the forest, but it’s not her and Odette appears at the window. He follows his real love back into the forest, but because his love was not true – she dies.       

Thousands of productions of Swan Lake have been created, and the story and characters are always in a state of flux. Sometimes the ending is changed to be happier, and sometimes it’s even more grim – with the young man being swallowed by the lake or dying of grief at his decision.

Swan Lake

The latest version from The West Australian Ballet cleverly weaves a traditional Noongar tale about Swans into the narrative and gives the work a colonial Australian setting.

The story begins with the Noongar Beeliar, whose Totem is the black swan. On the banks of the Swan River, led by the elder Mowadji (Kyle Morrison), they sing ancient songs and dance on sacred ground. They welcome Sebastian Hampshire (Oscar Valdes), a wealthy young settler who is friends with the group, and he is learning about their customs and history.

Sebastian’s father John Hampshire (Christian Luck) arrives, concerned about his son’s close friendship with Mowadji, he asks him to leave. Sebastian ignores his father’s commands and instead remains and hears the story of a white swan attacked by an eagle.

Swan Lake

Later at Fremantle’s bustling harbour Sebastian hangs out with his friends, including Mowadji. They share more stories and take a break from their work to watch people all the different cultures, who are arriving in the new colony, perform dances from their respective nations.

When a ship arrives, more people disembark to join the Swan settlement, including businessman William Greenwood (Matthew Lehmann) and his daughter Odile (Chihiro Nomura). Sebastian’s father informs him he has arranged for Sebastian to wed the young woman, as the match will forge a business alliance between the two families.

Sebastian leaves the dock and joins Mowadji on the banks of the river, meanwhile his father and new business partner Greenwood survey the land and develop plans to take it over, ignoring the current inhabitants who are the custodians of the land.

Sebastian and Mowadji discover a majestic flock of swans and drawn in for a closer look but are attacked by a territorial eagle. They then discover a beautiful white swan that is Odette (Kiki Saito). She explains that she enslaved by the Eagle and only a declaration of true love will free her from his spell.

After dancing with Odette, Sebastian declares he is in love with her. She warns him that the eagle will also try to distract would-be suitors by encouraging them to pledge their love for another.

The eagle returns and the swans flee, as does Sebastian. The eagle attacks Odette plucking her feathers and leaving her lifeless, but she is saved by the Noongar people.

Swan Lake

At Government House a lavish party is thrown for Sebastian’s birthday. His father surprises him by inviting his friends to perform a Neapolitan dance. Later Odile arrives with a troupe of Spanish dances who capture everyone’s attention. Odile is wearing a coat made of shimmering swan feathers, and this captures Sebatian’s gaze.

As Sebastian dances with Odile he becomes transfixed and believes she is Odette. He is blinded by the white feathers and fails to notice he has been tricked. Only when he declares his undying love he realises his error, and that he’s broken his promise to Odette. Dismayed at his actions he is downhearted, Mowadji finds him and guides him back to the riverbank.

It is revealed that the Noongar people have helped Odette to heal by offering some feathers from black swans. Reunited with Sebastian, she forgives him for his errors, and true love prevails, but not before the Eagle reappears to try and end their union one more time.

The performances in Swan Lake are faultless. The site of a stage filled with ballerinas in black tutus being swans is what ballet is all about, but the production is filled with dancers leaping through the air, performing countless pirouettes, and displayed their enviable skills in dance.

Oscar Valdes is a dancer at the peak of his powers, and he takes on the leading man mantle so well. Kiki Saito embodies being a swan with perfect movements and emotion, while Chihiro Nomura is energetic and hypnotic in her performance as Odile.

Mattheew Lehmann is perfectly cast in the dual role of businessman William Greenwood and the villainous eagle, and Polly Hilton has a moment in the spotlight as the Spanish dancer at the party.

It’s also notable that we’ve reached a point where the tune of a traditional Noongar song is as familiar as the melodies of Tchaikovsky, thanks to the embracement of welcome to country moments within our cultural landscape.

This version of Swan Lake invites us to come together and share stories, finding common ground and put equal values in different cultural expressions.

Swan Lake is playing at His Majesty’s Theatre until 11th December, tickets are available now  

Graeme Watson


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