★★★½☆ Glorious music and stellar dancing rescues routine re-imagining.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
April 1, 2016

Among the canon of 19th-century classical ballet, no work has been fiddled around with quite like Swan Lake. There have been daring re-inventions – Matthew Bourne’s all-male version, for example, has thrilled the world – but the desire to ‘fix’ perceived weaknesses with the storyline started immediately the curtain came down on the disastrously received 1877 premiere (unbelievably, not even the score was praised back then). Among the more applauded takes in recent decades is Graeme Murphy’s dazzling account for the Australian Ballet which, although intensely revisionist in terms of storytelling through music, retains a comfortable fin de siècle period beauty.

Photo by Daniel Boud

Australian Ballet resident choreographer Stephen Baynes’ four-year-old staging was an attempt to create a ‘traditional’ Swan Lake to sit in rep next to Murphy’s. In many ways, that seems hardly necessary (looked at from most angles, its popular predecessor seems entirely fit for purpose). Nevertheless, Baynes had a crack at it and came up with a rather lacklustre Russo-Ruritanian mishmash mixing the 1895 Kirov production and his own limited pool of ideas.

It’s not hopeless – Baynes creates a intriguingly subtle Prince Siegfried by throwing the focus onto him so roundly in Act I, and some of the dancing for the corps is winningly graceful and delicate – but his storytelling powers are short on imagination and all too frequently he’s reduced to little more than stirring the dramatic pot. His ‘big idea’ to show the tiny Siegfried torn from his father’s Wagnerian funeral cortege and enslaved to civic duty before reaching emotional maturity, is a good one. After that, alas, there’s little original thought until Rothbart fishes the drowned prince out of the lake at the end – and even that simply leads to a lame video projection and a damp squib of an ending.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photo by Daniel Boud

That said, there’s much to enjoy in the Australian ballet’s current revival. Amber Scott cements her place as one of Australia’s great prima ballerinas with a performance of enormous grace, charm and athleticism. On top of that, her every move is rooted in character, allowing full play to the contrasts between her naïve, vulnerable Odette and her sensual, calculating Odile. Quite apart from her effortless, lyrical movement and her magical, filigree entrechats, her party pieces like the dynamic fouettés en tournant in Act III, had the opening night audience actually shrieking with excitement.

Adam Bull makes a genuinely likeable Siegfried, his leggy stature and passing resemblance to Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent giving him a certain gawky charm. Despite Baynes’ efforts, the music still gives him fewer opportunities to shine, but he takes his chances and, given a little more space (the Joan Sutherland can be a little constricting), with his commanding, athletic build, one suspects he could take even more. Among the other soloists, Jayne Beddoe and Katie Pianoff do sterling work as the two ladies-in-waiting, Amy Harries and Dimity Azoury are excellent as the lead swans, and Sarah Thompson, Karen Nanasca, Jade Wood and Jill Ogai exhibit fabulous discipline and poise in the famous dance of the cygnets.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photo by Kate Longley

The corps dance spectacularly, especially the women whose Act II choreography is almost all Lev Ivanov from the 1895 Kirov revival (you can see at once why McAllister and Baynes decided not to ditch it). There’s always something compelling about 24 bodies in pure white tutus moving in perfect synchronicity, and with their fluttering gestures and classic leg extensions these swan maidens captivate throughout. The men have far less to do, though the lascivious gypsies and Cossacks in Rothbart’s retinue are standouts, injecting some welcome pizazz. At other times they execute some beautifully supple coordinated lifts, but one of Baynes’s failings is an inability to match the energy of the music to the energy of the dancing (particularly at the high-voltage openings of Acts I and III) and it is here that you find yourself longing for them to simply let rip.

Musically things are in excellent hands. Andrew Mogrelia (former music director at Queensland Ballet) is a magnificent Tchaikovskian – his Sleeping Beauty on Naxos is still top of my poll for recordings – and he manipulates the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra to great effect, knowing just where to take liberties with rubato and just where he needs to cut the dancers the necessary slack. Not even the melodically inventive Délibes ever quite matched the Tchaikovsky of Swan Lake, and in Mogrelia’s hands the score is given every opportunity to blossom. Concertmaster Jun Yi Ma also plays a blinder in his ravishing, stratospheric solos, easily justifying a well-deserved curtain call, and elsewhere there are many lovely touches from mournful oboes and bassoons, plus some stellar work from the brass.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photo by Daniel Boud

Towards the end of Act II there is a heart-in-mouth sequence where the corps of swans peel off into the wings one by one. It’s dazzlingly disciplined – a swirl of movement, too fast to allow the eye to catch and hold a single dancer. It’s also pure Ivanov. Pure Baynes, alas, never quite lifts the same spirits.

Swan Lake is at Sydney Opera House until April 20, then Adelaide May 26-31 and Melbourne June 7-18.