Kevin McKenzie makes a splash with Australian debut of Swan Lake.

Lyric Theatre, QPAC

August 28, 2014

The American Ballet Theatre have made their breathtaking debut on the Australian stage in Swan Lake, exclusive to Brisbane as part of the QPAC International Series. In conjunction with Queensland Tourism and Events, the International Series began with the intention of ‘bringing the world to Brisbane’ and has seen world-class companies such as the Hamburg and Bolshoi Ballets perform exclusive shows at QPAC. The American Ballet Theatre’s performance of Swan Lake on August 29 was also simulcast to seven different regional locations, live from the Lyric Theatre.

Swan Lake has been re-interpreted many times, from the first choreography by Julius Reisinger in 1877 to Matthew Bourne’s all-male adaptation in recent years. Cursed by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart, the swan queen Odette falls in love with Prince Siegfried, who swears to marry her and break the spell. Siegfried is tricked into declaring his love for another girl, the sorcerer’s daughter Odile, and a distraught Odette throws herself into the lake. Siegfried follows, breaking the spell and uniting the lovers in death.

Artistic director Kevin McKenzie’s interpretation of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s classic choreography earned its cast a well-deserved standing ovation on opening night. A short, simple prologue establishes the relationship between the sorcerer and Odette and the performance crescendos in the lover’s last, heartbreaking rebellion. There was certainly an element of American pizazz present. Pyrotechnics as Von Rothbart reveals his true identity at the ball, harsh strobe lights to create lightning in the final act and a cannon of soft white confetti during the curtain call added a new and exciting dimension to the performance. Fog machines lent an ethereal quality to the scenery, particularly to the final confrontation in Act 4.

Tchaikovsky’s original score was skilfully presented by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the elaborate costumes and sets designed by Zack Brown threw minimalism straight out of the window. Rich fabrics and intricate, kinetic sets were almost as engaging as the dance itself. The decision to split the Von Rothbart character into two – a horned monster and a handsome nobleman – provided an opportunity to re-examine the costuming of the character. Thigh-high boots of purple velvet made an interesting change from the traditional portrayals of the sorcerer, which usually included the large cloak stereotypical of ‘villainous’ characters.

Hee Seo in the dual role of Odette and Odile was undoubtedly the highlight of the cast, displaying speed and strength that seemed almost disproportionate to her slight frame. Enviable arabesques and extensions earned her the admiration of the audience and she danced each role in a distinctly different way. As Odette, she was believably a swan queen – light, graceful and elegant. One act later, she was barely recognisable as the femme fatale Odile. As the black swan, she performed the choreography with provocative flair, including a skilful execution of the traditional 32 fouettes in the Act 3 pas de deux.

Across both roles, Seo’s pointe work was exquisitely smooth. Her performance was a realisation of the dream that drove Filippo Taglioni to invent the pointe shoe for his daughter Marie – Seo floated across the stage as though she were entirely weightless. Cory Stearns gave a strong performance alongside her as Prince Siegfried, and their pas de deux work was enhanced by his strength and elevation. Roman Zhurbin was dynamic as the monstrous, animalistic form of Von Rothbart, and Alexandre Hammoudi gave a technically impressive performance as the sorcerer in his form as a nobleman.

There was a noticeable diversity of ethnicity and physique in the corps that is not consistently present in companies of this calibre. With dancers from as far afield as Australia and Japan, and as close as the company’s home in New York City, the variety was refreshing. So too was the presence of ballerinas who could be described as ‘athletic’ rather than ‘waifish’. It is encouraging to see a company of such excellence moving away from the restrictive norms of the art form’s past and into a future where ability will rightfully trump appearance.

The danse des petits cygnes (dance of the cygnets) is a linchpin of Swan Lake choreography, and was impeccably performed by Elina Miettinen, Luciana Paris, Sarah Lane and Skylar Brandt. The harmony of their movements, particularly the pas de chats, was truly enchanting. The entire corps is to be commended for their synchronicity. They moved as one, whether in the undulating movements of the swan maidens or the lively mazurka of the ball guests in Act 3. Among those who praised the dancers at a post-performance function was US ambassador for Australia John Berry, who joked that “kangaroos could learn something about jumping from you!”

The American Ballet Theatre will be performing Swan Lake from August 28 to September 4 at QPAC, Brisbane. More information is available at http://www.qpac.com.au/americanballettheatre/index.html