Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 1

Swan Lake - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photo: Daniel Boud

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake ranges from the ordinary to the sublime, but with Amber Scott giving a divine performance as Odette/Odile, sensitively partnered by Adam Bull as Prince Siegfried, this Australian Ballet revival is ultimately a very satisfying experience.

Baynes was commissioned to create a new Swan Lake for the company’s 50th anniversary in 2012. Artistic director David McAllister wanted a traditional production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s stunning modern version, created in 2002 for the company’s 40th anniversary, which drew so cleverly on the love triangle between Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles.

 Baynes has retained most of the Act II choreography for the swans from the 1895 Kirov version – and why wouldn’t you; it’s gorgeous and much-loved – as well as the Black Swan pas de deux in Act III. The rest is his.

He has topped and tailed the ballet with an image of Baron von Rothbart on a funeral boat. In the prelude, a melancholy Prince Siegfried, struggling with the responsibilities of his role as his coming-of-age party approaches, recalls his grief as a young boy at his father’s funeral. A boat glides across the back of the stage carrying his father’s body. Baron von Rothbart appears from behind it and fixes his gaze on the Prince.

At the end of the ballet, Rothbart fishes Prince Siegfried’s body from the lake and lifts it onto the boat. The suggestion that Rothbart holds some kind of sway over the royal family, and the Prince in particular, isn’t developed any further though. Baynes does have Rothbart lounge casually in one of the royal thrones during the Act III divertissements but that comes across as pretty unlikely. And it feels strange that we don’t see Rothbart controlling the swans.

The production gets off to a slow start with a rather ordinary Act I. The court is busy preparing for Prince Siegfried’s birthday. Ambassadors present foreign princesses to him in the hope that he will choose one of them to be his wife, while The Duchess and The Countess vie for the Prince’s attention. However, Siegfried can summon little enthusiasm for anything around him and as the act ends, he is drawn to the solitude of the lake. Thus he meets Odette as a result of his melancholy, rather than being in the forest hunting with friends, which is an interesting psychological reading.

Without a great deal of story-telling or dynamic choreography to enliven it, Act I feels rather long and uninspiring. The ballet takes off in Act II with the swans. The corps de ballet were in great form on opening night (less so, at the matinee the following day) and the beautiful, familiar choreography with the dancers in their white and silvery tutus, moving together in perfect synchronicity to create beautiful formations of swans, is as spellbinding as ever.

Swan Lake Baynes 2016_Photo Kate Longley-0G4A25402016204

Members of the Australian Ballet. Photo: Kate Longley

Most thrilling, however, is Baynes’ own choreography for the swans in Act IV. The way he has them flurry and swirl around the stage, moving apart and then flocking back together as the Prince tries to find Odette among them is absolutely beautiful. Their use of fluttering hands, arms and feet captures the sense of women trapped in swan’s bodies, and Odette’s grief at Siegfried’s betrayal, which has her body just about giving out beneath her, is heart-rending.

It’s a shame that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax with the Prince just running off stage, before being fished out of the water by Rothbart, while Odette is represented by the image of a flying on screen. The fact that she has been freed from Rothbart’s power by the Prince’s sacrifice doesn’t really come across and we feel robbed of that final cathartic, emotional moment.

Designer Hugh Colman has chosen the Edwardian era for the court scenes, with a lovely use of colour in Act III – greens, aquamarines, pinks and purples for the ladies and some vibrant designs for the Spanish dancers and Cossacks, which give the ballet a boost of exuberant energy. The lake meanwhile glitters darkly, moodily lit by Rachel Burke.

On opening night, Amber Scott was everything you want in an Odette/Odile. Her Odette was exquisitely fragile and ethereal. She danced as if there was a little less gravity in the air around her and conveyed emotion with every fibre of her being. The gracefulness of her arms, the undulating flexibility in her back and neck, the delicate, nervous flutter of her feet was utterly captivating.

Her Odile had a similar beauty but bolder strength and the calculated expression on her face conveyed the knowing way she used her charm to trick the Prince. As for her 32 fouettes, she nailed them with a precision that had the audience cheering.

Swan Lake - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photo: Daniel Boud

Adam Bull was a sensitive Prince Siegfried, partnering her beautifully, his towering height compared to hers working to emphasise how much he wanted to protect her. With his long limbs, the small stage doesn’t give him the space to really let fly with his Act III set pieces but he still generated excitement and his performance convinced dramatically.

Benedicte Bemet as the pushy Duchess and Miwako Kubota as The Countess both danced beautifully and created strong characters, as did Rudy Hawkes as the Prince’s friend Benno. Veteran dancers, Gillian Revie as the Queen, Olga Tamara as Siegfried’s nurse and Stephen Heathcote as The Lord Chancellor each created a strong dramatic presence.

Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score is, of course, a perennial pleasure and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra performed it superbly under guest conductor Andrew Mogrelia.

I was lucky enough to see Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo make their debuts as Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile at the matinee the next day. While not yet as heart-breakingly fragile as the experienced Scott, Kondo danced beautifully, capturing Odette’s feeling of entrapment and sorrow, while her Odile exuded confidence without being wildly different to her Odette. Guo conveyed the Prince’s melancholy convincingly and his set pieces in Act III had the dazzling energy and élan that makes him such an exciting dancer. Their emotional connection to the roles will naturally develop, but it was an impressive debut by both.

Swan Lake plays at the Sydney Opera House until April 20. Bookings http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

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Giselle

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 2

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

The ideal way to retire, they say, is to leave the audience wanting more – and Madeleine Eastoe will certainly do that when she hangs up her ballet shoes after her final performance as Giselle in Adelaide in July.

It feels like a fitting choice of ballet with which to say farewell. Eastoe was promoted to principal artist in 2006 after her debut in the role, and she is utterly exquisite in it. In fact, her performance at the opening of the Australian Ballet’s 2015 season was so heartrendingly beautiful it’s hard to believe that the time has really come for her to end her dancing career.

Giselle is one of the great, classical story ballets: a tragic tale of love, betrayal, madness, death and salvation from the Romantic era of ballet.

The Australian Ballet is again performing Maina Gielgud’s traditional but lovely 1986 production, using the 19th century choreography of Marius Petipa, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. Gielgud herself has been in Australia to revive the production, which has set and costumes by Peter Farmer, beautifully lit by Francis Croese (based on William Akers’ original design).

Though she is now 36, Eastoe looks convincingly young as Giselle, the innocent peasant girl who falls giddily in love with a dashing suitor. Flying around the stage she radiates a joy, which she is shy to admit but that cannot be contained. When she discovers that he is a nobleman (Count Albrecht) disguised as a peasant, and already betrothed to a Duke’s daughter, her weak heart breaks, sending her mad and then to her grave.

In the ethereal second act, a distraught Albrecht goes to Giselle’s grave in the forest where he encounters the Wilis, spirits of jilted women who dance men to their death. Still in love with him, Giselle pleads for Albrecht to be spared and manages to keep him alive through the night so that as day dawns he is saved.

Members of the Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Members of the Australian Ballet as the spirit Wilis. Photo: Jeff Busby

Eastoe is such an expressive dancer that she conveys every emotion along the way, while seeming to float across the stage, whether in joy, grief or transcendent love. There’s something about the incredible lightness with which she moves that suggests the air around her is more rarified, with less gravity, than anywhere else on stage. It’s a divine performance: unforgettable, in fact.

Hugely popular with audiences, the Sydney opening crowd went wild. The emotion of her final performance in Adelaide promises to be off the Richter scale.

Kevin Jackson gets better and better. Always a strong dancer, he now has the emotional expressiveness to match the physicality. He is in commanding form as Albrecht. His jumps are exciting, his partnering is sensitive and his performance has a depth of emotion. Despite Albrecht’s duplicity, Jackson convinces us of his love for Giselle in the first act so that he doesn’t appear quite as callous as he sometimes does. And his remorse in Act II is very moving.

Their pas de deux are lovely, developing from shy, joyfulness in Act I to something far more mature and deeply felt in Act II.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo are a delight in the exuberant peasant pas de deux. (They will dance together as Giselle and Albrecht at some performances). Dimity Azoury is a strong, steely presence as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, Andrew Killian gives a sympathetic portrayal of Hilarion, the gamekeeper in love with Giselle, and Olga Tamara exudes great warmth as Giselle’s mother.

The corps de ballet is in fine form and the scenes featuring the Wilis are intoxicating, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, gives a lyrical performance of Adolphe Adam’s music.

This Giselle is a beautiful and beautifully performed production, at the heart of which is Eastoe’s blissful performance. She is going to be greatly missed.

Giselle runs at the Sydney Opera House until April 22; Canberra Theatre Centre, May 21 – 26; Adelaide Festival Centre, July 2 – 6.

Swan Lake

Capitol Theatre, February 20

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Graeme Murphy’s delectable Swan Lake was first staged in 2002. It is now one of the Australian Ballet’s most loved and frequently performed works – and it’s not hard to see why.

Inspired by the love triangle between Princess Diana, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, it is cleverly conceived (concept by Murphy, the late Kristian Fredrikson and Janet Vernon), ravishingly beautiful, choreographically inventive and deeply moving.

If the AB is going to present a commercial season at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, then this Swan Lake – now one of their signature works internationally – is the perfect choice.

More than a decade on, the production still feels fresh, particularly when performed as sublimely as it was on opening night by Madeleine Eastoe as the fragile Odette and Kevin Jackson as the conflicted Prince Siegfried.

What’s more, it’s great to see the ballet on the large Capitol Theatre stage, where there is more room to move than at the Sydney Opera House.

For those who haven’t seen the ballet, the re-imagined story line works beautifully, dramatically and emotionally, lending itself to some of Murphy’s most stunning choreography. On the eve of her wedding to Prince Siegfried, Odette has unsettling doubts about his love for her – with good reason, for he is having an affair with a Baroness. Odette realises as much at their wedding and her mind begins to shatter. She is committed to a sanatorium, where she finds emotional escape in hallucinations of herself as a swan with the Prince still her beau.

Some months later, the Baroness – who has the Prince very much in her thrall – hosts a ball. Odette appears, now radiantly serene. The Prince falls deeply in love with her. The Baroness attempts to have her returned the sanatorium. Odette flees into the night with the Prince in hot pursuit. They fall into each other’s arms but Odette knows there will never be a happy ending. With the Baroness there, she will never know any peace of mind and so she throws herself into the lake, leaving the Prince to mourn her forever.

The Baroness replaces the sorcerer Rothbart of the original and also takes the place of Odile at the ball where all the guests are in dark, glittering outfits except Odette whose white dress reflects her spiritual purity.

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin. Photo: Branco Gaica

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin. Photo: Branco Gaica

Choosing an Edwardian setting, Fredrikson’s costumes are just gorgeous – the most famous being Odette’s ballgown with a long train, which Murphy weaves into choreography. There are all kinds of resonant touches in the costuming, including the swans appearing in black for the tragic denouement. Suffice to say the production, with sets also designed by Fredrikson, is a constant visual delight.

Murphy tells the story through emotionally imbued choreography that takes the breath away at times. It is wonderfully inventive while making references to the original, particularly with the swans. A pas de trois between Odette, the Prince and the Baroness says everything you need to know about the threesome and Odette’s bewildered anguish. The way Odette hurls herself into the arms of all the men at her wedding speaks of her broken heart, spirit and mind. There are signature Murphy flourishes, like Odette walking along the raised hands of the men, but they always feel as if they belong to the world of this ballet. And how the crowd loved the iconic cygnets, danced with admirable precision by Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin on opening night.

Eastoe is meltingly lovely as Odette. Always a superb interpreter of emotion, she is gossamer light, every moment perfectly performed yet intensely eloquent, her acting as convincing as her dancing. Jackson is her match as the Prince, portraying a conflicted man who is thoughtless rather than calculating, allowing himself to be swayed by the Baroness but finally realising what he has lost. I have rarely seen him convey such emotion.

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Dancing the role of the Baroness on opening night, Ako Kondo brings plenty of hard-edged flash to the role. With the entire company in fine form, this is just the show to seduce newcomers to ballet – and hopefully there will be many in the audiences at the Capitol, a venue closely associated with musicals.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra is currently playing for Opera Australia so Orchestra Victoria played Tchaikovsky’s glorious score under the baton of the AB’s Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon.

All in all, a beautiful night.

Swan Lake is at the Capitol Theatre until February 28

Lucinda Dunn’s Swansong

Lucinda Dunn in one of her Manon costumes. Photo: Lynette Wills

Lucinda Dunn in one of her Manon costumes. Photo: Lynette Wills

Lucinda Dunn was dancing the coveted role of Manon in Brisbane in February when she knew instinctively that the time had come to end her long, brilliant career with the Australian Ballet.

Last month, she announced that after 23 years with the company she will retire at the end of the current Sydney season of Manon, giving her farewell performance on April 23.

Dunn is the AB’s longest reigning ballerina having joined its ranks in 1991 at age 17. Promoted to the top tier of principal in 2002, she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in January for service to the performing arts through ballet.

She admits that the decision to retire wasn’t easy. “It was hard deciding when to go. It was always going to be difficult. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to leave. I haven’t made the decision lightly or without thought – I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” she says.

Making her long-awaited debut as the tragic Manon in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s beloved, sumptuous ballet ­ – to rapturous reviews – clinched it for her.

“It’s such a fantastic role and ballet that it seemed a fitting way to end my career rather than with a contemporary ballet,” she says. “I was scheduled to dance later in the year but I decided to go while I still have a lot to offer on stage and to an audience.”

Although Dunn has had the odd injury of late, she has been dancing as beautifully as ever despite turning 40 in December.

“(I’ve spent) more than half my life in the company. It’s a part of me but the fact is that when you get older your body is not as resilient. I feel a little bit compromised so I didn’t want the audience seeing that and feeling that,” she says.

“Also, I have two beautiful girls (Claudia and Ava) aged five and two. They mean the world to me and I need to give them more time.”

Dunn is married to the AB’s associate artistic director Danilo Radojevic, who recently announced his own retirement from the company after 17 years. Meanwhile, Claudia and Ava, who have spent a fair amount of time at the AB studio, are already showing signs of wanting to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

“They both love it, coming to ‘mummy’s ballet class,’” says Dunn. “Claudia, my eldest, did her first ballet concert last year and Ava won’t take the tutu off which Claudia has passed down to her. They have been around the dancers and the studio quite a bit. It’s been fantastic that I have been able to have them here.

“I’m extremely lucky that I have been able to return to dancing, because you don’t know what pregnancy will do to your body. I’m so grateful that I was able to return twice and finish my career.”

For Dunn, who has always had a particular love of story ballets, Manon seemed the perfect role for her swansong.

Set in 18th century France, it tells of a beautiful, young woman who is torn between her love for a poor student called Des Grieux and the seductive lure of the wealthy lifestyle of a courtesan offered by the wealthy Monsieur GM. The tragic ending has her dying in Des Grieux’s arms in a Louisiana swamp.

Hard though it is to believe, Dunn hasn’t danced the role until now. “I’ve been in the ballet numerous times in other roles but in 2008 when they last did it I was pregnant with my first daughter so it has been something that I’ve wanted to do,” she says.

“I’ve known the complexity of the character and it’s such a beautiful ballet. At this point in my life I have the artistry to portray her and say farewell.”

She agrees that it is an emotional rollercoaster to perform. “You do have to get to the crux of the character. You can’t hold back. The audience can tell if you are faking it. The end is devastating. I’m drained by the end of it.”

At the beginning of next year, Dunn will become artistic director of the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching College and the Sydney City Youth Ballet – a return to the Academy where she herself was a student as a teenager.

“Tanya Pearson was influential in my early career,” says Dunn. “My aim was to perform in musicals. My Mum performed in the West End as a singer, dancer and actor and on cruise ships and I thought that would be my path. But Tanya Pearson saw potential in me in the classical field. I entered (and won) the Prix de Lausanne when I was 15. That’s when things changed. As a result of the Prix de Lausanne I won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London and then came back to the Australian Ballet.”

“I’m grateful to have that in front of me,” she says of the new job. “It’s going to be a mourning process, that realisation that I won’t have class everyday or be performing on stage but I will be able to transition to a new career.

“I hope I can pass on what I have learned to help get the most out of a dancer. I have done a bit of teaching and coaching at Tanya Pearson in the past so I have had some experience. I hope I can pass on things to them (to help them) in their early stages. There’s that thing of ‘if I only knew then what I know now.’ I’ll need to learn some new skills in the coming months to be an artistic director. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Manon plays at the Sydney Opera House until April 23. Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com.au or 9250 7777

An edited version of this story appeared in the Daily Telegraph on March 22