Australian Dance Reviews

‘Swan Lake’ closes The Australian Ballet’s 60th year with resounding crescendo of artistry and innovation

The Australian Ballet's Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley in 'Swan Lake'. Photo by Daniel Boud.
The Australian Ballet's Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley in 'Swan Lake'. Photo by Daniel Boud.

Sydney Opera House, Sydney.
1 December 2023.

David Hallberg’s reimagination of Anne Woolliams’ Swan Lake for The Australian Ballet’s 60th anniversary celebration proved to be a triumphant blend of classical grace and contemporary innovation. As the third ballet of the milestone year, it aptly closed the diamond anniversary with timeless beauty, paying homage to the company’s rich legacy while elevating the artistry of today’s performers.

Whilst The Australian Ballet has performed different interpretations of Swan Lake over 800 times since 1962, it was important to Hallberg that a purely classical perspective would set the benchmark for audiences and artists alike to end 2023. Having explored the archives, Hallberg has preserved almost all the choreography, introducing new designs to meet the expectations of 21st century audiences, as well as reintroducing the famous waltz. Hallberg’s commitment to a purely classical perspective set the stage for a benchmark performance, drawing from the archives to preserve almost all of Woolliams’ choreography. 

The opening night unfolded with Tchaikovsky’s timeless score, initiating a momentous journey into the heart of the mysterious lake deep in the forest. From the first note of Tchaikovsky’s score, the momentum of the monumentous evening of opening night began.

The Prologue’s simple yet effective sets and contemporary lighting by T.J. Gerckens established the scene of the mysterious lake deep in the forest and the maidens that were transformed into swans unable to break free from the oppressive powers of von Rothbart. 

Flowing to the lively garden festivities in Act I – where Siegfried’s mother plans to find him a perfect match – the production seamlessly bridged traditional and modern aesthetics. Mara Blumenfeld’s costume design breathed new life into the fabrics, contours and textures, with striking colour palettes invigorating the often perceived as dated and dusty elements. Whilst the excitement grows, Siegfried, performed by Joseph Caley, remains uninterested, and deeply distracted, for his focus is elsewhere.

As darkness falls in ACT II, Siegfried sees a beautiful white bird in flight and follows it into the dark forest. As the swans return to the lake underpinned by the ripple-like score, he sees one transform into a maiden. Siegfried is transfixed by Odette, the Queen of Swans, performed by Benedicte Bemet. Her beauty and anguish captivate him. Bemet’s artistry, exquisite expression and elegance were perfectly paired with Caley’s flawless control; together, they were beguiling. The connection between the two artists in the pas de deux was visceral and extraordinarily effortless. The formations of the corps de ballet were visually striking, dancing in synchronisation within the atmospheric setting, as did the cygnets who echoed the swan orchestration.

The grandeur of Act III, featuring sets by Daniel Ostling, was nothing short of spectacular. The vibrant ball in the castle showcased potential princesses worldwide, each attempting to capture Siegfried’s attention with national dances. Caley’s superbly executed variation, impeccable landings in arabesque and suspended holds at the end of each turn, and Bemet’s refined portrayal of Odile, the black swan, added to the polished production. While Bemet appeared to inherently embrace the white swan more naturally, she was equally as enchanting. Vibrant and colourful, this act was full and versatile.

As Act IV unfolds, with Odette’s return to the lake and the swans mourning their fate, it is by this stage where Hallberg’s vision to challenge and nourish the company of today truly becomes apparent as a test of stamina in every possible way. The production escalates the marathon of emotions, physicality and repertoire. Lucas Jervies’ additional choreography and dramaturgy enriched the narrative of this reimagined masterpiece, whilst maintaining its legacy.

In essence, Swan Lake reimagined not only honoured The Australian Ballet’s illustrious past but also charted a course into the future with a fresh perspective. The seamless integration of classical elements, contemporary designs, and stellar performances by Joseph Caley, Benedicte Bemet, artists of The Australian Ballet made this production a mesmerising testament to the enduring allure of Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet’s 60th anniversary year was undoubtedly brought to a close with a resounding crescendo of artistry and innovation.

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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