Monday, September 19, 2022

Swan Lake: A fresh yet classical Swan Lake by the Czech National Ballet

Artistic Director Andrey Scharaev is delighted that the Royal Czech Ballet has the opportunity to present Swan Lake to audiences in Australia and New Zealand. 

“In this difficult time for everyone, when there is a conflict in Ukraine, we want to bring good through our art.” 

Swan Lake in photos: Behind the scenes of ballet's most famous production

This masterpiece ballet is presented in two acts and follows the original storyline with traditional choreographic revisions by Marius Pepita.

Swan Lake is the love story of Prince Siegfried who falls in love with the Odette. Odette is under a spell, where she is a swan by day, who turns into a woman at night. The spell can only be broken by a man who will pledge is love forever. It is a story where the virtues of love and forgiveness in the end conquer evil and betrayal.

Back in 1877, the Czech choreographer Julius Reisinger was appointed to craft the ballet. He and Tchaikovsky had a bumpy relationship, with both preferring to work independently rather than collaborate.

The Royal Czech Ballet will visit Australia for the first time with Swan Lake...the most loved classical ballet of them all.

This masterpiece ballet is presented in two acts and follows the original storyline with traditional choreographic revisions by Marius Petipa.

Swan Lake is the love story of Prince Siegfried who falls in love with the Odette.  Odette is under a spell, where she is a swan by day, who turns into a woman at night. The spell can only be broken by a man who will pledge is love forever.  It is a story where the virtues of love and forgiveness in the end conquer evil and betrayal.

The Royal Czech Ballet features elite dancers from European countries of France, Italy, Moldova and Ukraine.

Royal Czech Ballet 🩰

With most international borders open at last, dance companies are once again on the move. One of those soon to visit Australia is the Royal Czech Ballet (RCB), which will be a chance to see some of Europe's top professional dancers performing in that masterpiece of the classical repertoire - Swan Lake.

 The founder and director of the RCB is Andrey Scharaev. He was also a founder of the St Petersburg Classical Ballet company that toured Australia in 2016. Scharaev is Moldovan but spent a good deal of his performing career at the Moravian Theatre in Olomouc in the Czech Republic.

The RCB, which he established in 2008, tours mostly through Europe but also the US and Canada, performing a repertoire of the classics or gala programs. The dancers come from all over Europe, with a large number from Scharaev's homeland - “because I'm born here and have many friends here", he explained via Zoom from Moldova. “Usually I would have many dancers from Ukraine and Russia too, but as you know it is a very difficult situation.”

One of the main stars in the ensemble, who will perform the dual Odette/Odile role, will be Moldovan-born Cristina Terentiev, who was a principal dancer with the National Opera and Ballet of Moldova and the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada. She has won many awards, including the 2007 Grand Prix at the International Competition of Ballet Artists in Vienna, Austria, and the gold medal at the 23rd International Classic Ballet Contest of Varna (2008).

Another big star is Ukrainian-born, Bolshoi-trained Elizaveta Savina, who has visited Melbourne before with the Ballet of St Peterburg.

Overall there are 32 dancers, performing a two-act version of Swan Lake, which Scharaev promises will be “absolutely traditional”. “I'm a conservative man and in classical ballet I think genius people did it before and I don't think I can improve it. For me is absolutely great [as it is].”

Czech is a republic, so why has he dubbed the company “Royal”? I ask. Scharaev laughs. “Big ambitions! Why not? It was free and I ask in the institutions if I can use, they confirmed I can use this name. We couldn't use Czech National because there is already one in Prague.” He adds that there was a Czech royalty in the past.

The company will assemble in Madrid in Spain to rehearse before flying to Australia, where the dancers will start their tour at the Theatre Royal in Hobart on September 2 before traversing the land, performing 37 performances in 22 venues over two months, before moving on to New Zealand.

In the press release for the tour, Scharaev stated: “In this difficult time for everyone, when there is a conflict in Ukraine, we want to bring good through our art. We have an international company with dancers from different European countries, including Ukraine. The theatre is something that has always united people and always will do.”

It's the company's first visit to Australia, featuring dancers from France, Italy, Moldova and Ukraine.

Swan Lake is one of the most popular and sought-after classical ballets there is, and therefore a wide range of different versions is being presented by numerous companies all over the world. Some of them stick to the traditional fairy tale, while others put the story in a whole new perspective. The Czech National Ballet (Národní divadlo Balet), a Prague-based company of 82 dancers led by Petr Zuska, was searching for a new Swan Lake that is both "a bit new and a bit original". This resulted in Kenneth Greve's production that premièred on the stage of the National Theatre in 2009. This production is the more modern of their two Swan Lakes (the other version is by Pavel Ďumbala), both being frequently performed by the company throughout the season. Greve's production concentrates more on the story and its depth,  providing a fresh interpretation while retaining an overall classical appearance and feel. 

His Swan Lake is introduced with a dreamy scene of prince Siegfried’s youth. Behind a see-through curtain we see the boy mourning by his father’s grave. He finds a feather on his pillow and hurries to show it to his friend Benno, upon which his mother tells them a bedtime story of Swan Lake, brought to life by the dancers on the side of the stage. In this story the princess is caught under the spell of an evil sorcerer, but rescued by the prince who shoots him. A taste of what will happen later, but with a slightly different outcome.

A fresh yet classical Swan Lake by the Czech National Ballet

Swan Lake was the first music for a ballet which the Bolshoi Theatre commissioned from Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1877, to accompany the choreography of Julius Wenzel Reisinger. The initial version was judged mediocre at the time, however, it was unearthed thirteen years later by Marius Petipa. If he remains faithful to Tchaikovsky’s intentions, the symbolism of the white swan and the black swan was explored in greater depth by Rudolf Nureyev to give the ballet a more psychoanalytical dimension. That interpretation would later be used by a number of filmmakers as they constructed psychological thrillers while questioning the quest for artistic perfection.   

Several versions of Swan Lake exist, but the one by Rudolf Nureyev — created for the Paris Opera Ballet in December 1984— undoubtedly remains the most Freudian. The choreographer opted to place a male character, Prince Siegfried, at the heart of the narrative to portray the full gamut of his emotions on stage. In the prologue, the dozing prince has a “strange and premonitory” dream just as the synopsis for the ballet indicates. A princess is captured by a bird of prey and takes to the skies with it…a scene that in reality heralds the end of the ballet. InLeonardo da Vinci a Memory of His Childhood, published in 1943, Sigmund Freud writes: “To be a bird is only a disguise for another wish […] in a dream, the desire to fly signifies nothing other than the inner desire to be capable of sexual activities”.

Here, Odette, the white swan, symbolises the perfect woman, the one to which Siegfried must go to, even though he is irremediably attracted to a darker more shameful desire (homosexuality?) represented by Odile, the black swan. This inner turmoil is also exacerbated by Wolfgang, his tutor, and Rothbart, the cruel magician, each in turn a symbol of a Freudian projection of the Superego (reason) and the Id (perversion). This analysis is all the more poignant when we take into account that Tchaikovsky himself was homosexual. Embittered by this, Tchaikovsky wrote at the time in a letter to his brother Modest: “I find that our tendencies are the greatest and most insurmountable obstacle to happiness”. A quote that could equally be applied to Siegfried, who ends up mired alone in the fog of his own consciousness.    

How do you update a classic ballet? Give it a new wardrobe

Celebrating its 60th anniversary next year, the Australian Ballet is reinventing a classic. But not too much.

Lauren SamsFashion editor

When Swan Lake premiered in Russia in 1877, its score – from Tchaikovsky, no less – was considered too complicated, too loud, too “Wagnerian”. Ouch.

One hundred and forty-five years later, though, the ballet is one of the world’s most beloved, performed consistently over the globe, and rarely modernised. That soundtrack? It prevails.

In Sydney at the back half of this year alone, two travelling companies will perform Swan Lake – the Royal Czech and the United Ukrainian Ballet. And in a winning trifecta for ballet lovers, Swan Lake will also form the debut – and surely, crown – of the Australian Ballet’s 2023 season, which also happens to be its 60th anniversary.

“Every major ballet company needs a classic version of Swan Lake,” says David Hallberg, the Australian Ballet’s artistic director. “We’ve had some very successful versions in the past, especially Graeme Murphy’s. And I felt that this anniversary was the perfect time to find a Swan Lake for us.”

Delving into the Ballet’s archives, which are funded by Chanel, Hallberg found Anne Woolliams’ 1977 production, which became a part of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire for more than 20 years. “It was a beloved version, and there was a reason it stayed and a reason I kept hearing about it,” says Hallberg. “So why not bring back a version that really worked for Australian audiences?”

The performance is expected to tour nationally, though exact locations have not yet been revealed, and will feature a brand new costume for the central character, Odette, that draws direct inspiration from Woolliams’ famed ballet. Designed by the Australian Ballet’s head of costume, Musette Molyneaux, and constructed by Anna Porcaro, it was made for principal artist Robyn Hendricks (though no casting announcements have yet been made).

Most companies outsource their costume-making, including the Paris Opera Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. But for the Australian Ballet, costuming is central to the narrative of the performances. Swan Lake, naturally, is no different.

“The costume took about five weeks to design and make.” says Porcaro. “A normal tutu, without embellishment, takes about a week. But it was important that this was a collaboration between Robyn, David, Musette, our milliner.”

The skirt might look light and soft, says Porcaro, but much as a ballet dancer appears lithe, it is stronger than one might imagine.

The fabric is very tough; it’s a stretch crepe over drill, so it is soft and moulds to the dancer’s body, which David was very insistent on,” she says. “You get that sharp line of the body.”

The skirt mimics the feathers of a swan, and is composed of 10 separate layers of tulle which, admits Porcaro, will probably be damaged “many times” over the course of the tour. Sometimes, she says, repairs mean that a tutu will be almost completely different at the end of a tour – because it has been patched with new material so many times – than at the start.

Treading the balance of audience favourites and pushing the boundaries is a constant challenge for artistic directors, particularly in dance. For Hallberg, “the classics are the classics for a reason”.

Swan LakeThe NutcrackerSleeping Beauty – they don’t need to be tinkered with too much,” he says. “There is something to be said for heritage. Classic French food has a place today still, even when there is so much other food. And it’s the same with art. You can evolve but the classics are still there.”

On the other hand, Hallberg hastens to add, even the classics “can’t look dusty, they can’t be museum pieces”.

Although the performance will use Woolliams’ original choreography, the ballet will look markedly different.

One key change is that the number of dancers in the company has nearly doubled since 1977.

“So we are just swelling the stage, filling it with dancers,” says Hallberg. “Visually, it will be so impactful.”

For Hendricks, Swan Lake is “the ultimate ballet” (she has previously played Odette in two other Australian Ballet performances, including the 2018 staging of Graeme Murphy’s adaptation). “It’s the one you dream of dancing when you’re a kid. I still remember the first time I saw it, all those dancers on the stage, moving as one. It was transformative.”

The show will mark 60 years of the Australian Ballet, a milestone Hallberg was initially daunted by.

“I’ve only been here for two years and I’m going to be at the helm for this big event,” he says. “But I realised that the 50th anniversary was about celebrating the previous 50 years, and I feel that the 60th should be a testament to what the company is now and what it will be in the future.

“So, I didn’t bog myself down in the pressures of the past. I mean, that’s what I’m here for, to look to the future.”

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