Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA; October 16, 2014
On its first visit to Berkeley in more than twenty years, the Australian Ballet presented a “Swan Lake” full of surprises. The first is revealed the moment the curtain rises: Rather than having the sorcerer von Rothbart turn the virginal Odette into a swan, choreographer Graeme Murphy conjures a more worldly scene, with a shirtless Prince Siegfried and his negligee-clad mistress in flagrante delicto. The music’s climactic clash of cymbals coincides not with Odette’s transmogrification, but with the mistress’s orgasm.
Clearly, this is not our grandmothers’ “Swan Lake”. In fact, it’s arguably not “Swan Lake” at all. Murphy’s version upends Marius Petipa’s canonical ballet in every way, from the plot and the time period to the score and the addition of campy comedic touches. Depending on one’s point of view, that makes it either another travesty in an era of declining appreciation for classical ballet or a refreshing breeze that blows the dust off a stuffy genre.
Created for the Australian Ballet in 2002 by Murphy and Janet Vernon, this “Swan Lake” is an annual tradition Down Under. The original “Swan Lake” premiered in 1875, and its allegory of tragic love has endured because of its compelling beauty, virtuosic principal dancing and magnificent Tchaikovsky score. Presumably in an effort to make the tale more relatable to a modern audience, Murphy recontextualizes Odette, Siegfried and their nemesis, Baron von Rothbart, in terms of the notorious 1980s love triangle involving Diana, Princess of Wales; her husband, Prince Charles; and his longtime mistress (now wife), Camilla Parker-Bowles, restyled as Baroness von Rothbart. Murphy combines these real-life characters with the basic concepts of love, lake and loss in “Swan Lake” into an original story that entertains but neither transcends its plot points nor reaches choreographic heights.
The opening-scene consummation gives way to the wedding of Odette/Diana (danced by the elegant Amber Scott in the opening-night cast) and Siegfried/Charles (the boyishly handsome Adam Bull), which for some reason takes place in the Edwardian era, a period rich in royal love triangles of its own. Scott and Bull dance convincingly as passionate lovers, which is odd in its own way, because Charles apparently never loved or desired Diana. An ensemble of senior artists and soloists play the joyous wedding guests; costumed in military dress blues for the men and ivory-lace peplum gowns for the women, they danced with excellent unison and engaging verve. Arabesques and countless jumps showcase all of the dancers’ lovely ballon and extensions. Special credit goes to Scott, and the Odettes in the other two casts, for dancing on pointe in a satin wedding gown with a ten-foot train, and for pulling off terrifically acrobatic leaps into the arms of the groomsmen.
The Baroness (a steely Lana Jones) arrives, darkening the party with a cloud of adulterous allure. After presenting the newlyweds a gift of Hungarian czardas dancers, interpolated from the original Act III, she makes a shameless play for Siegfried, and their affair resumes in the middle of the dance floor. This betrayal drives Odette mad, signified by fouettés set to the Black Swan coda music, another Act III import. The score is simply so thoroughly rearranged that there’s no point in continuing to note the changes; the Berkeley Symphony, led by Australian Ballet’s own conductor Nicolette Fraillon, played it well and precisely, as though they’ve always played that topsy-turvy arrangement. Finally, a psychiatrist and a pair of nuns interrupt the party and cart Odette off to a sanatorium.
Act II opens in Odette’s hospital room, a Fritz Lang-esque chamber of windows defined by extremely forced perspective and an op-art zigzag backdrop. The set then parts to reveal Odette’s hallucination of requited love. An enormous flat disk, angled toward downstage, stands in for the usual lake in a streamlined, postmodern set. Murphy’s contemporary-classical pas de deux is appealing enough, with unusual angles, lifts and bends that lend an expressionistic quality to the dancing; here and there a fluttering, akimbo arm even suggests a swan-like essence. The cygnets, with their zippy footwork and comic flair, bring life to an otherwise uninspiring swan corps, who do not benefit from droopy, drop-waisted dresses.
But those are just superficial trappings that can’t conceal the underlying problem with Murphy’s Act II: when this pivotal, emotionally ripe scene is turned into a dream, it loses its resonance and the main characters come to a standstill. Now decorative, the magnificent adagio is sapped of the anguished tenderness that has kept audiences in thrall for 150 years. The love affair, and consequently the story, is over.
The Baroness returns in Act III, co-hosting evening cocktails with Siegfried. Guests in black tie and black gowns mingle in a salon with black-painted walls and tufted black settees – echoes of the Black Swan, who never appears in this version. Odette, apparently on leave from the sanatorium, crashes the party in a gossamer white gown. The rival women circle, parry and heave themselves at Siegfried in a dance battle for his affections, because for some reason both of them still want this fickle cad. Murphy saves his stagecraftiest surprise for the finale, which won’t be revealed here.
Clearly, if one is to enjoy this “Swan Lake”, one must leave all expectations in the lobby. And there is much to be said for turning a classic on its head; just as an anachronistic production can bring thrilling insights into Shakespeare or Verdi, a radical reinterpretation of Petipa has the potential to make the story ballet newly relevant. However, while Murphy has created a mix of classical technique and contemporary freshness that holds the audience’s attention, the unfocused storytelling keeps this production from taking flight.