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Swan Lake

By Fiona Prior - posted Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Swan Lake is one of the best loved of all classical ballets, premiering in 1877 with an original score by Tchaikovsky.

Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake is like no other rendering of this classic ballet. Debuting on stage in 2002 – yes, all that time ago – it is Murphy's retelling of an ill-fated romance; quite blatantly that of the triangular bonds that tragically entrapped the late Diana, Princess of Wales (Odette); Prince Charles (Prince Siegfried) and the equally tortured Camilla Parker Bowles (the now Duchess of Cornwall) as Baroness Odile. Murphy's interpretation recognises all the painful complexity that unequally requited passion can bring to all participants.


Taking into account the number of ballet babies at the Capitol Theatre matinee this Saturday and the fact that Murphy's Swan Lake has been on international tour for well over a decade, Murphy's Swan Lake quite obviously is already a version embedded in the hearts and imaginations of little girls and boys all over the world. I can imagine that these little ones have a romanticised version of the tumultuous marriage of Charles and Dianna told to them by their parents, in much the same way as our generation have inherited the legendary romance of Edward and Mrs Simpson.

I was holding out on writing up Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which I saw late 2014 for the first time, thinking that writing of Murphy and Bourne's takes on the classic in the one essay would be fitting. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake was first staged at Sadler's Wells theatre in London in 1995 – yes, all that time even longer ago! Bourne's Swan Lake is the longest running ballet in London's West End and on Broadway, as well as having toured internationally for many welcome years. Both Murphy and Bourne as choreographers have had the bravery to take on an iconic cultural work and inject it with the their own unique stamps, by using identifiable characters and/or social realities while still honouring Tchaikovsky's sweepingly romantic musical score and Swan Lake's narrative framework of an enchanted fairy tale.

Image from Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Quite obviously, Murphy and Bourne are not the only choreographers who have detoured from a classic rendering. Garry Stewart's Birdbrain by Australian Dance Theatre springs to mind as another incredibly successful dance work inspired by Swan Lake. I will never forget the heart-breaking violence of a series of brutal arrows being shot at point blank range into a heart-shaped white feather target – the arrows accompanied by scarlet explosions of blood in my mind's eye – that so shocked the audience of Birdbrain in 2001.

Likewise, I think almost everyone who saw Darren Aranofsky's film Black Swan in 2010 will also feel that this graphic interpretation, though jumping mediums completely, was true to the spirit of the classic. Aranofsky confidently escalated the visual and emotional pitch of Swan Lake to that of psycho-drama.

But back to Murphy and Bourne's Swan Lake(s). The dream team of set and costume designer Kristian Fredrikson and light designer Damien Cooper create the moody three dimensional canvas in which the Australian Ballet Company's shining talent gracefully flesh-out this romantic tragedy – Murphy using artistic licence to segue into an enchanted forest of swans and lake, by having our mentally fragile princess hallucinate this place of idyllic natural freedom from the confines of a mental institution.


By contrast, Bourne's Swan Lake took the nature theme further by making his swans feral and dangerous, while his 'dark swan' (a male Odile, if you will), was a testosterone-dripping mysterious stranger, so irresistible that all the ladies of the court (including the Queen) and also a young Prince on the verge of a sexual awakening, fall heavily under his virile spell. I should add that the set and costume designer of Bourne's Swan Lake, Lez Brotherston and the director of lighting Rick Fisher, conjure an equally fitting dreamscape for this more savage tale.

Such brilliant creators and such vivid renderings! The beauty and grace of the swan has obviously been playing havoc with our collective imagination for many, many years.

Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake is playing at Sydney's Capitol Theatre until 28 February. Details here

You will undoubtedly be able to catch Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake when it next tours Australia - or elsewhere!: Some details here

*Disclaimer: I love more classic renderings of Swan Lake too. One of my favourite productions was the Royal Ballet's performance in 2002. It reinstated part of the 1895 Pepita-Ivanov production that Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write in 1875 and I felt privileged to be in the audience.

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This article was first published on Henry Thornton.

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About the Author

Fiona Prior has contributed to many arts related publications over the last two decades including The Bridge, Pulz, Stiletto, Satellite and Billy Blue.

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