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I've just returned from seeing a terrific new ballet from the Australian Ballet. Stunning sets, beautiful costumes, excellent choreography, wonderful music, superb performances. It's a ballet in four acts choreographed by Graeme Murphy:

Act 1 opens with our young heroine (Simone Goldsmith) happily contemplating the prospect of her marriage to the prince (Steven Heathcote) the following day. She catches sight of him approaching and runs to hide behind the grey-black curtains. Lovely piece of dance work here as the prince dances with the impression of her body through the curtain... but wait! As she steps from behind the curtain we see it is not our heroine but the baroness (Margaret Illman)! Some passionate love making follows between the prince and the baroness and the scene is set for the heroine's downfall.

-blackout- scene change to the wedding the following day... Lots of dancers as guests at the wedding. Clever cameo role for dotty young girl who is head over heels in love with another of the guests...

Heroine appears in gorgeous wedding gown with extra long train which is used brilliantly in her pas de deux with the prince. Wrapping/unwrapping the pair as they dance together.

Wedding over and the couple re-appear in their going away outfits: she in pretty apricot dress and he in blue serge suit. The baroness joins the party and it is immediately apparent that she has designs on the prince. Knowing glances give way to touches between the baroness and the prince with the heroine becoming more and more aware of the situation - culminating in a stunning pas de trois where the prince becomes increasingly unaware of the heroine and fully aware of the baroness. This is clever choreography as the three intertwine... the baroness making ever more passionate advances and our heroine less and less able to intervene.

Eventually the young girl can take no more and decides to make the prince jealous by making advances to every other male at the party. This backfires as the baroness words up the queen (did I mention the queen? No? There's a queen.) about her behaviour. Eventually, everyone at the party is in a lather of disapproval towards our poor girl - including the prince. She begs him to reject the baroness and return her love but is cruelly rejected by this beast of a man. Steve plays this wonderfully - his cold, hard cruelty increasing more and more as our heroine becomes more desperate to regain his love.

Hey Steve! That's our Simone! You leave her alone! The beast! The Cad! The Bounder! Oops... sorry... got carried away there... but it was a very good piece of dancing.

Well, as you can imagine, being rejected and cruelly treated by her husband on her wedding day and shunned by everyone else at the wedding party, our poor heroine flips her wig. She runs from guest to guest pleading and generally carrying on in a real mad scene... (now this looks familiar... where have I seen this before?). But in the meanwhile, the queen has been in touch with the local sanatorium and they come and take the poor girl away... Which leaves the prince and the baroness to carry on themselves.

Act 2:

The sanatorium. A totally white set - apart from some steel pipes leading to a totally white bath and a large bay window with a view over a dark and sombre lake. Our heroine clad in a white bath robe sits hugging herself and rocking on a totally white bench beneath the bay window. The Sisters of Mercy in totally white habits arrive to force our young girl into the bath. Having bathed her, they slip her into a white smock to await the arrival of the prince who is paying her a visit.

When the prince arrives she becomes frantic and he is unable to control her. He decides to leave. The girl looks out the large bay window and sees the prince and the baroness arm-in-arm leaving the sanatorium. This is too much for her and FLASH! The bay window disappears revealing the lake with a group of swans... the walls of the sanatorium disappear...

The swans: Costume is a white bodice with a calf length “floaty” type of skirt, shorter at the front. When seated on the stage, this gives the impression of the swan’s body. Small cap-like headpiece with a “lacy/feathered” look.

Our heroine joins the swans and appears at one point amidst them dancing dressed as they are. Lots of pretty ballet here including a piece for four cygnets which is very familiar – but wait! What happened then? Oh, clever! The cygnets have swapped places without letting go of their hands… and again! And that’s a new arrangement too – forming a square… hmmm quite nice really.

The prince appears – this time as the loving husband he should be and they dance a delightful pas de deux. No portable barre role for the prince here… this is two people dancing passionately together. I love the way Steve can lift her over his head without the slightest quiver in his arms – it appears so effortless and flowing. Thunderous applause – but the orchestra won’t wait for us…

The baroness appears and the vision is destroyed. The stark white sanatorium returns and leaves the young girl staring out the window at the retreating figures of the prince and the baroness.

Act 3:

A party at the palace. The walls are black ripples or corrugations (there is a credit to M C Escher’s “Rippled Surface” in the program notes – maybe that’s referring to this set). Set high and angled towards us is a large, black, oval reflecting surface where we can see the dancers on the stage below reflected.

Dancers clad mostly in black: Tuxedos for the men and beautiful dresses with a dark mustard colour for the women. The baroness is in grey and black.

Trumpets herald each group of guests as they arrive. The dotty young duchess appears again making an ultra-fast flying entrance into the arms of the earl. Laughter from the audience. Lots of dancing as the party gets under way. Nice pas de deux from the prince and the baroness.

Suddenly our heroine appears – unheralded. She is dressed all in white. The guests part in confusion to let her in. She is cool, calm, elegant and goes to each of them in turn to chat. Some are concerned and move away, others are glad to see her. The prince becomes more and more aware of her presence and the baroness more agitated. This culminates in a similar pas de trios as in the first act. However, this time it is the baroness who loses the prince's attention and our young girl who wins him over. Fickle sort of a cove, this prince.

The baroness is incensed and there follows an altercation where our heroine is forced to flee from whence she came. The prince and the baroness perform a rejection pas de deux where all the attentions of the baroness are rebuffed by the prince who is now besotted with the departed young girl. All the guests have gone and now the prince departs to find his true love… The baroness now performs a delicious solo full of spite and vixen devilry and then runs off to follow the prince – obviously with some evil plan in mind.

Act 4:

The lake. All black. The swans have the same dress style as in act 2 except that they are now all black. Our heroine is with them similarly dressed.

After some interesting swanning around, the prince arrives to be with his love and they dance happily. A little later the baroness turns up to break up the happy couple and try to re-claim the prince – but he’s not interested. The baroness keeps up her interference and our heroine eventually sees that there can be no future for her with the prince and casts herself into the lake. Poignant scene as she sinks beneath the water with the prince sadly looking on. (Now any decent prince would have dived in after her, but not this fellow). Scene ends with the prince staring despondently over the audience pining for his love.


Now, as I said at the beginning, Costumes, Sets, Choreography, Music are all wonderful. Story line could do with a bit of work. But overall I really enjoyed it. Just one quibble – I know Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music identifies with a particular ballet but the story line and the choreography are totally different – so why do we need to call it Swan Lake?

Cast list:

Odette: Simone Goldsmith

Prince Siegfried: Steven Heathcote

Baroness Von Rothbart: Margaret Illman

The Queen: Andrea Toy

Prince Consort: Robert Olup

Princess Royal: Lynette Wills

Princess Royal’s Husband: Adam Thurlow

Duke: Joshua Consandine

Young Duchess to be: Madeline Eastoe

Earl: Timothy Harbour

Earl’s Equerry: Mathew Donnelly

Lord Admiral: Colin Peasley

Marquis: Harry Haythorne

Baroness’ Husband: Adrian Burnett

Lead Hungarian Couple: Renee Moon, Joshua Horner

Royal Physician: Timothy Farrar

Guardian Swans: Rachel Read, Annabel Bronner Read

Cygnets: Rachel Rawlins, Gaylene Cummerfield

Leanne Stojmenov, Camilla Vergotis

Guests, Hungarians, Swans, Servants, Nuns and Children

Artists of the Australian Ballet and of the Australian Ballet Junior School

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En-Pointe: Yes

Classical: Yes

Dancers comfortable: Definitely yes - one or two very minor awkward spots - maybe Graeme is still ironing out the wrinkles...

Please excuse my lack of reviewer finesse - this is my first try.

Would you mind explaining your use of the term "vocabulary" - I realise that it is a way of defining whether a piece is classical, contemporary etc... but I'm not yet able to talk knowledgeably about this aspect of dance. For instance, whilst I felt that the overall feel of the dance was classical, there were movements which reminded me more of the style of Jiri Kylian which, I think, is more "contemporary"? The pas de trois, for example, was an intertwining of bodies whilst still using classical arabesques, developees... If I've got this right...

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It's actually a hellish difficult definition to make, Roy - people will wrangle over "What is classical" until the crack of doom. My own "modest proposal" though, would be to charge a tariff to all writers who wish to use the words "firmly rooted in the classical vocabulary" in any dance review. This tariff should rise exponentially with each usage. Finally, any writer who uses those words should be forced to explain, in detail, exactly what was firmly rooted in the classical vocabulary and why. If s/he cant, double tariff.

Off that Swiftian tangent. . .

What would make the dance vocabulary used "classical"? None of these are sure signs, but they all are good ones. And in this case, when someone uses the word "Classical" they mean "pertaining to classical ballet".


Pointe work.

A lifted center of gravity and high carriage of the torso.

Use of canonical foot positions and port des bras.

Contemporary is one word to describe Kylian's style (and probably about as mutable a term as "classical", alas). One area to look for a difference is in the use of the back and pelvis. There are what Martha Graham termed contractions in ballet choreography, but it's not part of ballet vocabulary; it's an import. Kylian, among other choreographers, uses Graham-derived torso movements in a way that distinguishes him from ballet.

More than you ever wanted to know. . .and others feel free to add or correct, please.

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That's what I was after - some aspects to look for which would help with classifying dance as belonging to a particular genre. Thanks Leigh. I'll do some further reading - particularly around Martha Graham's back/pelvis movements.

Anyone know of any dance analyses with an associated video or dvd? I just need someone to point and say "Look, see that movement? Well, it's firmly rooted in the classical vocabulary." ;)

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Thank you very much for your detailed review, Roy. I have an idea of what the ballet was about, far more from that preview piece!

I remember when I first starting agonizing over whether it was ballet or modern dance -- contemporary was still a minor part of the repertory in the mid-1970s. I'd agree with Leigh's definitions -- when people say "classical vocabulary" it's another way of saying "uses the danse d'ecole," or "academic classicism" -- there are hundreds of combinations of basic steps that have come down to us over the centuries. ABT has a basic video dictionary with some of the most basic steps that's helpful.

We also have an Archive here (check the bottom of the board, left side) of past debates and definitions of classicism. It doesn't matter to one's enjoyment of a piece -- you like or you don't, it's good or it's not -- but it does matter in the same way that the difference between a shallot and an onion matters to a cook, if you're a cook. :(

I remember the American critic (and modern dancer/choreographer) Deborah Jowitt wrote, quite angrily, in the mid-1970s that she was beginning to see work which was so blended that she couldn't easily say whether it was classical or modern dance. From a modern dance point of view, technique was your identity; the early moderns worked out whole systems for movement. Within that frame of mind, Jowitt wrote about the new breed of modern dancers who were (shock!) taking ballet classes something like this: "They can do anything and are committed to nothing."

I'd echo your question "why do we need to call it Swan Lake?" (and I'd echo Leigh's answer. Also, it's a good score, and the score is now free.

Aside from the crass commercial aspect of naming a ballet "Swan Lake" expecting to capitalize on the brand name, there's also the aspect of, "I am brilliant and a deep thinker because I have brilliantly and deeply rethought tha boring, stupid old so-called classic."

(We also have a section on the main site about the original "'Swan Lake," by Mel Johnson, and an archive about "Swan Lake" productions, if you're interested.

Here's Mel's "Swan Lake" pages.


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