Flights of fancy
Swan Lake: then and now
Corps de ballet in Peggy van Praagh's production Swan Lake, The Australian Ballet 1962
A trembling ballerina in a white tutu. The tragic Swan Queen on a lake of tears. For ballet lovers, Swan Lake has everything: drama, grief, love, lust. And, of course, Tchaikovsky's magnificent, romantic score.
When Dame Peggy van Praagh founded The Australian Ballet (AB) in 1962, she chose a traditional Swan Lake as its premiere production, the perfect launch vehicle for a new national company. Fifteen years later, Anne Woolliams created a new version in long, soft romantic tutus. Graeme Murphy stunned audiences around the world with his radically reinvented version in 2002, with a love triangle resembling that of Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles. Now, to celebrate 50 years since its debut, the AB is about to float a new Swan Lake in the traditional mould, choreographed by Stephen Baynes.
''Not a single dancer in the company had danced in a traditional Swan Lake before this version,'' Baynes says. ''All of them are discovering the sheer beauty and romanticism of it, and most of the audience will be seeing it as a new experience, too.''
Here is a look at how things have changed for the dancers since 1962.
Two of the most famous dancers in the world, Sonia Arova and Erik Bruhn, starred in the AB's first production in 1962. ''Sonia was very vivacious and Erik had that pure classical style and was very handsome,'' says former ballerina Marilyn Jones, who was watching from the wings. She would later dance the role of Odette-Odile herself during the company's first season that year.
''It's a great role because you get to have two personalities,'' Jones says. ''Odette is a very lovely person and Odile is vivacious and flirty … and wicked.''
Baynes says Swan Lake is only as good as its stars. ''It does stand alone as a work of art,'' he says. ''But, ultimately, it is the principals who carry the work, and that hasn't changed over the decades.''
Jones and Baynes say dancers have come a long way technically since the 1960s. ''The height of the leg has certainly improved,'' Jones says.
''But the artistry? In the 1960s we had dancers from all over the world, all with different training. It was a company of personalities.''
Baynes says any first-year girl in the AB's corps de ballet has the technique to dance the role of Odette these days, though not all have the acting skills at such a young age. ''That's the distinction between now and in 1962,'' Baynes says. ''Somehow over the years, in the constant striving for greater flexibility and greater technique, the emotional performance quality that dancers had so strongly 50 years ago is not lost, but not emphasised enough.
''To carry a ballet like this, that emotion is really essential.''
Amber Scott and Adam Bull will dance the lead roles on opening night in Sydney. Baynes says Scott has a ''poetic vulnerability'' that makes her right for the role. He describes her as ''a creature'': ''That's what we say in the ballet world when a dancer moves in an extraordinary way and makes it look natural and beautiful; they're almost not human.''
Scott describes her own style as ''lyrical''. Her fluid expressiveness has drawn comparisons to Jones.
''My dancing might seem similar to Marilyn's in that sense, but I think each dancer brings their own essence to it,'' she says. ''Marilyn told me she loved playing the black swan because it showed a different side of her. I feel that, too. Odette is fragile and a bit damaged and her heart is pure. She has a glimmer of hope when the prince swears true love, but she is also a fatalist and knows she can never be saved. But Odile is intelligent and calculating. Stephen doesn't want her to be evil. Instead, she's sensuous and alluring. Being a bit more spiky is quite fun.''
A ''new traditional'' version of Swan Lake? What does that actually mean? ''We are trying to capture the essence of Tchaikovsky's deeply romantic score while keeping the pure classicism in the choreography,'' Baynes says. ''Most people know the swans on the lake in the second act and we've kept that very close to the Kirov [Ballet] version, although I've changed Odette's entrance and I've re-choreographed the dance for the two lead swans, but the rest is [Russian choreographer Lev] Ivanov.''
No one really knows what the original ballet - choreographed by Jules Reisinger for the Bolshoi - was like in 1877. But we do know it was a flop; ''unimaginative and altogether unmemorable'', according to one critic at the time.
A revival by Ivanov and Marius Petipa in 1895 proved a success in St Petersburg, though Swan Lake was still regarded as inferior to Sleeping Beauty and over the years, many choreographers made changes to its first, third and fourth acts, though all retained Ivanov's ethereal swans in the second.
Peggy van Praagh modelled her version on the production by Britain's The Royal Ballet, which kept close to the traditional Russian choreography.
Baynes has re-choreographed three acts to make the story clearer.
''Early classical ballets have a lot of divertissements, where dancers come out and dance for the sake of dancing, and the story is broken up with pas de deux and pas de trois that are mostly decorative,'' he says. ''I have taken all that out and given each dancer a reason for being on stage. I want each dancer to be connected to the prince and his court in a meaningful way.''
Baynes says the prince should be at the heart of the story, rather than the Swan Queen. ''The swan gets all the attention, but I think it's really about this young man who is thrust into a world he doesn't fit into.
''It's about his search for beauty and truth and wholeness. He gets a chance to grasp it, but because of his own human weakness, he discards it.
''The tragedy is in how someone can yearn for something, then have it put in front of them, and then destroy it or lose it so easily.''
The special effects
Clouds of dry ice pouring over the stage and into the orchestra pit, or alarming pyrotechnics going off around the evil magician, Rothbart, have dogged previous productions of Swan Lake. The new production is somewhat more sophisticated, Baynes says.
''We didn't want Rothbart appearing in Act II, running about with a cape and an owl's face,'' he says. ''I don't think a contemporary audience would accept that. So we've used projections to suggest the other-worldliness which is at the heart of the lake. It's a nod to 21st-century technology and shows the ballet is moving forward.''
But the company is also using a 17th-century lighting technique called a ''roller'' at the back of the stage. ''It rotates and flickers light so it looks like moonlight dappling on the water,'' Baynes says. ''It's incredibly effective and very, very beautiful.''
And billowing dry ice? ''I think it's a little bit cliched now. It can be effective but it's very hard to get right. When you see it puffing out from the wings you think, 'Here comes the dry ice!' So there's no dry ice. We're hoping to achieve everything with the lighting alone. The brief was to capture the essence of Tchaikovsky's score. If you fight against that [with too many special effects], you're shooting yourself in the foot.'' And no one would want that.
In 1962, when budgets were tight, Peggy van Praagh had to use hand-me-down costumes from the defunct Borovansky Ballet. The principal dancer, playing Odette, wore a short tutu, while the swan maidens capered in the soft, knee-length variety.
''Longer tutus can be very beautiful and romantic,'' says the AB's costume and set designer, Hugh Colman. ''But Stephen [Baynes] wanted short tutus for this one.
''They give a different line to the body and it means the prince has to look harder to find Odette. If she's the only one in a short tutu, she's too easy to spot.''
Colman says earlier productions favoured a higher neckline for women, beaded or feathered bodices, and thin shoulder straps. ''We now use a sheer, skin-colour net instead of shoulder straps, and I've gone for pearls instead of beads on the bodice and headdress,'' he says. ''There is a legend that the lake was made from the tears of the King and Queen, whose daughter was taken away to become the Swan Queen. Pearls symbolise tears. I thought that was a rather beautiful image.''
Feathers are gone, too. ''The look is more maiden than swan,'' he says. ''In this production, we are emphasising that they are women during the night and they turn back into swans at dawn. So there are no feathers. But the feather shape is referenced in the tutu and the headdress.''
Colman has also abandoned the traditional pure white for the costumes in favour of a ''moonlight'' look. ''Because they are women rather than swans, I wanted them to have a fairytale beauty about them,'' he says.
''So we've used a very pale silvery blue-grey, combined with cream. Most people will look at them and think they are white tutus, but they are off-white with a slightly silvery quality.''
The days of reusing old costumes may be over. Colman says today's dancers simply cannot fit into the costumes from 20 or 30 years ago. ''They are breeding them leaner, taller and stronger,'' he says. ''There are very few small dancers now. They all do Pilates and they train differently. They are more like athletes.''
The Australian Ballet's principal physiotherapist, Sue Mayes, agrees. ''Dancers today are technically stronger than they were in the past,'' she says. ''They have greater flexibility and longer limbs, which are harder to control. We create individual strength programs for each dancer depending on what they are dancing in the repertoire. We really promote strength over flexibility and make sure they are strong enough to cope with the workload.''
The 1960s dancers had little backstage support: famously, a ''little red first-aid kit'' helped them with injuries, Mayes says. ''The magic bullet was Alka-Seltzer tablets, which they thought cured everything. If it was really bad, they'd go down to the Quay to the Headache Bar and get a Bex. But there was no lie-down! They'd just keep going.''
These days, the company has an on-site medical team: physiotherapists and massage therapists, along with a body-conditioning specialist, a rehabilitation ballet coach, and sports physicians who double as GPs. Psychologists and podiatrists are sourced as needed.
Few dancers suffer stress fractures in the feet, a condition that plagued dancers in the '60s. Foot and ankle surgery is now rare. ''It's all about strength training and early reporting of any symptoms,'' Mayes says.
When the dancers come off stage, they rip their shoes and tights off and dip their legs into ice buckets up to the shins. ''It's a fantastic recovery tool for muscles,'' Mayes says. ''We have one male dancer who stops at the petrol station on the way home, buys bags of ice and lies in an ice bath up to the armpits. He says he feels fantastic the next day.''
Swan Lake opens at the Opera House on November 30.