October 2011

Arts & Letters

Ballet masterpiece

By Jill Sykes
Graeme Murphy - ‘Swan Lake’, 2002

Like Shakespeare’s plays, great ballets get their makeovers by the score all over the world – except that Shakespeare’s words are (mostly) left intact and the choreography of the classic ballets is (mostly) discarded. Cleverly, Graeme Murphy and his collaborators, Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson, combined old and new to the familiar music by Tchaikovsky, slightly re-organised, for the Australian Ballet. The iconic sequences of massed swans were retained, but the story was told afresh in choreography that has classical bones but contemporary reach, dynamism and plasticity.

The classic Petipa–Ivanov Swan Lake was first performed in St Petersburg in 1895. It revolves around a prince whose duty is to marry but he can’t find a suitable girl. (Does this remind you of a certain British royal?) Murphy’s characters are, of course, deemed to be fictitious, but there are many familiar references that bring this Swan Lake closer to home than the imperial Russian original. It is still about good and evil, love, deceit, power, transformations of different kinds – more psychological than magical this time – but told in contemporary dance language that is clear, touching and exhilarating.

—Jill Sykes

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