Not Your Typical Swan Lake

The Australian Ballet presents a modern retelling of the Tchaikovsky classic

Some things improve with a good dusting off. That’s the idea behind choreographer Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, which is being performed by the Australian Ballet this weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The 19th-century ballet, about a doomed swan queen, keeps the renowned score by Tchaikovsky but flutters up a notch to the modern age, with a story line that includes the late Princess Diana. The production premiered in 2002 to positive reviews, and this is the first time in more than 40 years that the company is touring in Los Angeles. We spoke with artistic director David McAllister and principal dancer Amber Scott about what we can expect to see.

Please briefly describe the ballet. How is it similar or different from the classical version?
David McAllister:
While every step of this ballet is the choreography of Graeme Murphy, it is very much inspired by the music of Tchaikovsky and in acts two and four pays homage to what we know of the [Lev] Ivanov choreography. Graeme used the 1877 score, so the music is in its original order and is quite different to the arrangement that [Marius] Petipa and Ivanov used in their later version. Graeme and creative associate Janet Vernon took the ideas of betrayal and royal duty from the traditional story of Swan Lake,but they were also inspired by the love triangle between Princess Diana, Prince Charles, and Camilla Parker Bowles. Graeme and Janet wove the nature of this complex relationship into their production, with the young Princess Odette suspecting on the eve of her wedding to Prince Siegfried that he is having an affair with the married Baroness von Rothbart.

What is your artistic process like? How did you help realize Graeme Murphy’s vision for this ballet and help bring all the pieces together?
DM: I have always been a huge admirer of Graeme’s work, having had the pleasure of being in a number of his ballets as a dancer. He created a very successful Nutcracker for the company in 1992 for our 30th anniversary, and during a conversation much later he said that he always thought Swan Lake would be a ballet he would love to transform. When I was appointed artistic director in our 40th anniversary year, it seemed like the perfect time to make this desire a reality.

What do you hope Los Angeles audiences come away with after seeing the performance?
DM: The constant feedback we have about this ballet is that it is such an emotional work. I have received letters from audience members from all over the world where we have performed the work (London, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, Manchester, New York), saying how they have never cried at the ballet before seeing this version of Swan Lake. I hope we can move the L.A. audiences and take them on this emotional journey—and hopefully have lots of teary eyes at the end of each performance!

From a dancer’s perspective, were there any particular challenges in preparing for the role of Odette? And which are your favorite parts?
Amber Scott:
This beautiful ballet by Graeme Murphy and my role as Odette has challenged and confronted me for ten years now. There are so many layers to this work. When I was first learning this role, my challenges were in finding the physical strength to enable me to get across the intense emotions that Odette goes through—physically making my body emote the story for an audience in a big theater rather than just expressing Odette’s feelings as you would in a close-up angle for a camera. One of my favorite moments in this ballet is in Act Four, when the Prince is at Odette’s feet. They are alone together in a dome of blinding light, and it is like time stands still for them in a moment of bliss before the final descent into the lake.

How does the ballet inspire you?
AS:
This ballet is very exposing. You must commit yourself completely to the story and audience. This is the sort of work dancers ache to perform because the physical and artistic rewards are as draining as they are rewarding. When I finish this ballet, each time I feel a deep sense of gratitude to have had such a spiritual experience from a ballet.

What do you hope to convey to Los Angeles audiences?
AS:
I hope L.A. audiences will come away with a keen interest in our company and also an appreciation for the unique style Aussie dancers have. Swan Lake is a wonderful example of our ability to combine modern and classical genres, while also being a company of diverse theatrical talent. We are so excited to be performing here in the City of Angels!

Performance schedule: Oct. 9 to Oct. 12. Go to musiccenter.org.

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