The Royal NZ Ballet’s Swan Lake – classic and freshly-minted

The Royal New Zealand Ballet presents:

the Vodafone Season of –

TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake – Ballet in Four Acts

Cast: Gillian Murphy as Odette / Karel Cruz as Siegfried

Paul Matthews as Baron von Rothbart / Rory Fairweather-Neylan as The Jester

Laura Jones as The Queen Mother / Sir Jon Trimmer as Wolfgang

Royal New Zealand Ballet Company

New Zealand School of Dance

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Conductor: Nigel Gaynor

Choreography: Russell Kerr

Design: Kristian Frederickson

Lighting: John Buswell

St James Theatre, Wellington

Thursday 18th July 2013

This was opening night of the season, and I had not seen a performance of Swan Lake in the theatre for many years – so I was, one might say, on this occasion, energized, expectant and attuned. It was a special occasion in a much wider sense as well – sixty years ago Danish emigre Poul Gnatt, who had been a principal with the Royal Danish Ballet, set up the present New Zealand Company, and actually staged Act Two of Swan Lake in that first season of 1953. So this 2013 Swan Lake was fittingly the Company’s sixtieth anniversary production.

The Company first presented the full ballet in 1985, but in 1996 choreographer Russell Kerr, together with designer Kristian Frederickson, staged a new production, revived for this present season’s celebrations. Happily this “aging, arthritic choreographer” (as Kerr described himself) was able to join the performers on stage for a curtain call at the end, and receive due acclaim from the audience.

The evening’s program as well contained a message dedicating the Wellington performances of this production to the memory of Richard Campion (1923-2013), the founder of the New Zealand Players in the 1950s, and an original trustee of the Ballet Company. All in all, the event carried an impressive assemblage of history and achievement over the Company’s years of existence.

I have to register some surprise and disappointment that more New Zealand-born dancers weren’t used, in both principal and supporting roles, on such an occasion as this. As was also the case with the Opera Company’s recent “Butterfly”, I was left wondering to what extent our own home-based artistic institutions make as a priority the development of our own performers, and, following on from this, our own particular home-grown performance character and standards.

To my mind there’s something lost as well as gained by all too readily “going global” and using off-shore performers as a matter of course (and my concern extends to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s recruitment trends as well) – can we afford long-term to so markedly take the “New Zealand” out of our performance makeup? I don’t mean to sound isolationist, or anything like that – it’s all a matter of degree – but I think it’s important to have some regular access to what our own performers can offer over a range of artistic endeavors, in tandem with rather than supplanted by artists from overseas.

But back to the performance in hand, and to the immediate joy of having the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in the pit at the St.James. Right at the beginning, I was struck by the wind playing – beginning with the oboe, and continuing with the clarinet, those plaintive instrumental sounds sparked off a welling-up of emotion, one which overwhelms me no matter how often I hear this music – all of it with the curtain still down in the theatre, the raw feeling of the scenario laid bare in pure sound for us to experience for ourselves.

Of course, the “orchestra pit” scale of the band isn’t to be compared with what one hears in the concert-hall or on record, so that the instrumental agitations have rather more of a sharply-focused than an epic quality. But the playing got from the orchestra by Nigel Gaynor made for some sublime sounds.

When the curtain opened on the beginning of Act One, I was transfixed by a feeling of then-and-now, akin to what I felt when watching the Company’s stunning revival of Russell Kerr’s and Raymond Boyce’s production of “Petrushka” a couple of years ago – here, part of me immediately became a small boy once more, taken to a place of youthful enchantment, an exquisitely-detailed and beautifully-lit forest glade.

Siegfried was danced this evening by Karel Cruz, originally from Cuba, and currently a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet in the USA. Very tall and possessing both incredible grace and astounding cat-like reflexes, he was able to command the stage in the time-honoured manner, though without diminishing the presence or impact of any of the other characters. I thought this “giving to others” quality seemed to come from the complete easefulness and naturalness which he exuded as the Prince.

This allowed the character roles, such as Rory Fairweather-Neylan’s enthusiastic and amusingly gauche Jester, and Sir Jon Trimmer’s affably urbane Wolfgang (the Prince’s tutor) plenty of “leavening-room”, heightening the contrast with the story’s darker, more serious aspect. Yet another dimension, that of the Royal Court, was splendidly highlighted by Laura Jones’s dignified Queen Mother, her character using both the entrance music and regalia in a totally convincing manner. This splendor was thrillingly caught in the mighty Polonaise, whose strains seemed to set the whole theatre dancing – Siegfried and the men matched the music’s energies as characterfully as did the Pas de Trois dancers a sequence or two earlier, expressing the scoring’s exquisite delicacies.

Act Two seemed to be upon us before we knew what was happening, introducing us to the lakeside, the swans and their enchanter, Baron Von Rothbart. But what a wonderfully-contrived entrance of the swans! – perfectly mirroring the composer’s cunningly-written canonical figurations. From their first encounter I thought that Gillian Murphy’s Odette made the perfect foil for Karel Cruz’s Siegfried. Supported by orchestral and solo instrumental playing to die for, both principals seemed to dance right into one another’s characters, registering the tensions and impasses of their situation as much as their yieldings and intertwinings. The cygnets then charmed us with their twinkling synchronizations – I enjoyed the gradual burgeoning of their movements throughout, delicacy eventually becoming overlaid with vigour and “attitude”. And Odette’s final solo of the Act, slow, sensual and tremulous, wrung out oceans of feeling with each movement – a superb performance.

Von Rothbart at the lakeside I confess I couldn’t quite “get”. I thought Paul Matthews danced the role with plenty of energy and focus, though I felt that neither his costume nor the staging throughout this sequence greatly supported what he was trying to convey – especially in a post-Harry Potter world a somewhat drab owl costume isn’t in itself going to help generate any great malevolence or a properly-telling sense of a sinister “creature of the night”. I would have thought something more lurid – either more striking makeup, or a kind of infernal colouring worn underneath the owl’s feathers – would have helped the dancer suggest a force more baleful and dangerous than the “bad-tempered scoutmaster in drag” kind of cameo evoked by the unfortunate bird regalia.

One had, in fact, only to compare, by way of contrast, the same dancer’s properly menacing portrayal of the Baron in Act Three, dressed as a nobleman, and accompanying his daughter to Prince Siegfried’s ball, to get a sense of what could have been suggested at the lakeside as well. Add to this Gillian Murphy’s particularly bright and sharp-edged depiction of the daughter, Odile – made to look like Odette, to deceive Siegfried – and there was evil personified most satisfyingly, by both father and daughter.

Earlier, the third act had burst into life richly and resplendently, the colours of both decor and costumes a burnished gold, befitting the family’s obvious importance. Odile’s and Von Rothbart’s entrance galvanized the party just before the Spanish Dance, throwing the Prince into confusion at the girl’s likeness to Odette. Of the national dances the one I thought came off best was the Neapolitean Dance – we heard some terrific trumpet playing from the pit and enjoyed some spirited dancing from Adrianna Harper and Mehdi Angot.

This, however, was decorative stuff compared with Siegfried’s and Odile’s pas de deux – Gillian Murphy’s freedom and fluidity of movement was incredible, her Odile bringing into bold relief the previous Act’s “imprisoned” state of being suffered by Odette. And all the while Karel Cruz’s Siegfried was captivated, so directly and intensely focused upon his strange new partner. What I thought was the tiniest of forward stumbles right at the end of her concluding solo, from the super-confident Odile, didn’t detract from a fine, tautly-drawn performance. The “real” Odette, on the wrong side of the window and trying to warn Siegfried, was here danced skillfully and plaintively by an unnamed dancer.

Like many symphonic finales, Swan Lake’s final Act goes for broad brush-strokes, with well-worn but effective storybook themes, this one suggesting a kind of “redemption through love” scenario, which in slightly varied forms has served the ballet’s purpose well over the years. Some judiciously-applied mist concealed Odette along with her grief at apparently being betrayed by Siegfried, as the act opened. Again, the beauty of the wind-playing which opened the slow,affecting dance of grief added to the pathos of it all.

As the darkness gathered the lovers decided upon their fate, bringing the vengeful Von Rothbart into the open – back in his owl form he again seemed far less menacing, but the music, via some truly splendid climaxes led the way through the lovers’ sacrificing of their own lives in the waters of the lake and the evil sorcerer’s death – we were left with a striking diagonal array of ex-swans in a “farewell flotilla”, saluting the liberated spirits of the drowned lovers, as the curtain slowly fell.






























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