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Dance to the Letter

Looking to the alphabet, many letters have been used to describe a swan, from the S of their long necks to the letters V and J to describe the overhead appearance of the flock echelons of them in flight. But on the opening night of the Australian Ballet’s “Swan Lake,” originally produced by Anne Woolliams after Petipa, and reimagined in 2023 by David Hallberg, with additional choreography by Lucas Jervies, the letter S could stand for shimmering, sublime, sincere; the V for the dancers’ virtuosity; and the J for a jewel that befits the company’s 60th anniversary.

Performance

The Australian Ballet: “Swan Lake”

Place

Words

Gracia Haby

Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley with artists of the Australian Ballet in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Kate Longley

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In 1962, it was “Swan Lake” that Dame Peggy van Praagh chose to launch The Australian Ballet’s first season. In 2002, The Australian Ballet premiered Graeme Murphy’s “Swan Lake,” and in 2012, for their 50th anniversary, Stephen Baynes’s “Swan Lake” brought things full circle, or so it seemed. For a ring is round, it keeps revolving, and so does a timeless tale of eternal love; beauty ever draws us back to the lake.

This “Swan Lake,” with sets by Daniel Ostling, heightens the longed-for contrast between states of place and being, with the forest always visible, magnetic, be it from inside the palace ballroom or the surrounding garden. The deciduous trees are reminiscent of a John Nash landscape and the subsequent mood they evoke (think: “The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall” and “Interior of a Wood, Whiteleaf”). Had Siegfried brought with him a pair of binoculars instead of a crossbow, who knows how things might have unfolded for him. But then, as the mournful oboe of the overture foreshadowed, tragedy lies ahead, and I am transfixed.

Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley with artists of the Australian Ballet in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Kate Longley

From up in the circle, the V formation of perfectly aligned swans, luminescent in costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, is as exquisite as in nature, where each migratory bird flies slightly above the one in front to conserve energy through reduced wind resistance and takes turns in the various positions. This ingenious sky choreography ensures they can glide for longer, and keep an eye on one another, which is not unlike the long-distance migration, orientation and communication on the stage. In the rehearsal period, “the dancers make constant adjustments to their head, neck and arms to create vital symmetry,” and now, having been transfigured into swans by the commanding Jarryd Madden as von Rothbart, the corps de ballet put into practice the hours spent “cultivating the art of special awareness,”[1] as former Australian Ballet corphée, Lisa Craig explains. The dancers’ eyes “scan marks on the floor to set formations consistently, and spaces between each swan are measured and memorised.” Stage markers like celestial cues to navigate ensure a “complex, unique map forms in the mind of each dancer,” and with Lead Swans Valerie Tereshchenko and Rina Nemoto, this drift of swans is fiercely, beautifully, immutably protected; none more so than the light-footed, interlaced Cygnets, Yuumi Yamada, Jill Ogai, Jade Wood, and Aya Watanabe.[2] From where I sit, it is as if, like swans, they can ‘see’ Earth’s magnetic field lines.

Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley with artists of the Australian Ballet in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Kate Longley

From the captivating, winged grace and strength of Odette to the beguilement and directional attack of Odile, as sharp as the shards of gold metallic net in her tutu, if I am to talk of magnetism, the night surely belongs to Benedicte Bemet. Bemet’s Odette/Odile is part Wooliams’s intended of-this-world reality to the fairy tale,[3] to a ripple away from flight. Partnered by Caley, their entwinement upon the stage reads true, when I return the following Tuesday week. Lakeside, once more, but this time in the stalls, by the time they reach their Act IV pas de deux, I am reminded of the power of art, and all things human; a mixture of the sublime and the earthly, such is the captivation. For a suspended moment in the theatre, I am overwhelmed by what humans can achieve. A rare sensation! A rare bird indeed!

Gracia Haby


Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.

footnotes


  1. Lisa Craig, “Beneath the lake: a swan’s perspective’, Behind Ballet, September 1st, 2023, https://australianballet.com.au/blog/beneath-the-lake-a-swans-perspective, accessed September 20, 2023.
  2. From the Hungarian, Spanish and Italian divertissements in the ballroom to the joy of the Pas de Six, with Nemoto, Ogai, Mason Lovegrove, Nathan Brook, Yamada, and Watanabe, spells are cast not just upon maidens and hoodwinked princes, but upon a willing me, sat in the audience. Transformations occur, not just in the spinning of the tale, but upon dancers in the company as they make their debuts or return to various roles, and meld technique with emotion and their own unique response. As such, it is proving hard to single out various dancers and keep my awe in check.
  3. “As well as the avian nature of the swans, Wooliams wanted to bring out the human incarnation. Michela Kirkaldie [who performed the principal role when Marilyn Jones snapped her Achilles tendon at the dress rehearsal] says, “She drew out the womanly part of the swan, she really worked on the rapport in the pas de deux, the moments when you look at each other, the body language. She bought reality to the fairy tale.”” Rose Mulready, “Divine Fire,” The Australian Ballet “Swan Lake” programme, 27.

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