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About the Change

A Swan Lake that everybody gets

Australian Ballet's Swan Lake seems to touch people as few productions ever do - David McAllister and Graeme Murphy explain just what went in to it's magic.

© Jeff Busby

Special Feature on AB in July 2005 magazine

Australian Ballet Swan Lake story and creative team

Australian Ballet reviews

Australian Ballet Photographs

ABTalk - discuss the Australian Ballet UK tour

Australain Ballet website

Bruce Marriott reviews

"The greatest work ever to be created for Australian Ballet" was critic Neil Jillett's summing up of the 40-year-old company's most recent production. Impressive words, and all the more impressive because they typify what all the critics in Australia said about what is a very different and emotionally-charged Swan Lake.

While critics views are wonderful (when they are wonderful...) it's box office that pays bills and this Swan Lake connects with the audience and sells like hot cakes. It's had the same impact in Australia as Matthew Bourne's 'blokes' Swan Lake did in the UK, bringing in new audiences as word-of-mouth rippled through to the wider public who want a good night out. Bourne's Swan Lake has gone on to conquer audiences across the World and the omens are good for Aussie Ballet in their first showing of the work outside Australia - in Cardiff (this week) and London (next).

Swan Lake's success with the audience and critics is a fairy tale come true and at first glance David McAllister, the Australian Ballet's artistic director whose first commission this was, looked to be taking a huge risk in asking Graeme Murphy, a contemporary dance choreographer with his own company, to take it on and also to enthusiastically embrace changes to the story as well as the music. But McAllister was convinced that most productions just weren't hitting the right buttons: "A lot of Swan Lake performances that people saw of our company left with them talking about the fouettes, the costumes, the sets, the

David McAllister
Australian Ballet Director

© Justin Smith
double tours and the ballerina's wonderful back. It should be different, it should be 'OH my God - how emotional - that story just resonated with me'. I didn't feel that productions of Swan Lake I'd seen had that impact."

Originally a few changes were discussed but it seemed a kludge: "By starting again it freed us up to create a production that has that incredible resonance emotionally and tells the story of Swan Lake but in a way that really relates to us today. It's a story that can happen to anyone - you're in love with someone, they fall in love with someone else... the fragility of a relationship and how it can go wrong. And people have come up to me, and in letters, and said 'It was the first time I cried at the ballet for years'. It struck this chord with the audience."

The big change, for those who know the ballet, is to make Rothbart a woman - a Baroness - and there is a 3-way love triangle between Prince, Princess (Odette) and the Baroness. It's been called the House of Windsor version but it is not about Diana, Charles and Camilla so much as the predicament they were in. "It was simply a departure point", says Graeme Murphy, "and when we hit upon the concept, that there were three people in this (Swan Lake), magically everything fell into place rather beautifully and a lot of things, even within the original story, made sense."

Ausralian Ballet's Swan Lake
© Jeff Busby

Murphy shares McAllister's wish to connect with the audience: "It's the emotional trigger points that are important to me because I know if I could believe in the characters and try and imagine how they felt then I'd be able to do something quite honest. I think it requires a bit of honesty, Swan Lake." But Murphy had a surprisingly broader view of what he wanted to achieve: "I wanted to give people - which is fairly bizarre considering my whole life is contemporary dance really - I wanted to give people a really fulfilling sense that they had seen a white classical ballet - in a very pure form. But I also wanted to give them an intelligent emotional journey, without having to suspend reality - to be able to look at those characters and see reasons for the relationships and why what happens happens." No wonder ballet newcomers love it.

'Graeme Murphy
© Australian Ballet

Honouring the music is also key to understanding the Murphy interpretation: "For me it was really important to get the essence out of the music for the story and not, sort of, press the music into the service of the whimsical telling of it." He continues "The key to Swan Lake IS the music and (for me) putting the score back close to its original version. So putting the Black Swan in Act 1 where Tchaikovsky put it and not cutting repeats just to make your life easier - because it was there for a reason."

Pretty uniquely for somebody creating a Swan Lake, Murphy has never danced in it: "I'm very happy about that because I listen to it now and it's not attached to an arm, or step or position." It's clearly given him great freedom, though I'm amazed that he got the show on in only 5 or 6 weeks and when the company were busy doing other repertoire too. What's more he didn't spend all his time in the studio - he talked to dancers and the dramatic success of the work is as much down to his coaching of mind as of body. He's pleased by "the dancers' journey on this work - their involvement, that they don't just see it as a series of steps and stick on emotions - they just can't get through this work unless they are completely in it."

But what makes him even more pleased is that everybody gets it - the dancers, the critics and most of all the audience: "I know from the sea of tears in the auditorium - people leave with something special."

The Graeme Murphy Swan Lake is a wonderfully successful updating of a classic and David McAllister is rightfully proud to have bought it into the world - "It's Swam Lake for the 21st Century - it's THE Swan Lake" he says with a wink. I think audiences, be they fans or less-frequent ballet goers, should prepare to be amazed - just don't forget to pack your hankies...

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