There's no more familiar score than Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. It was the composer's first ballet, after all, and for those who are admirer's of the craft, has left an irreplaceable mark in the framework of ballet history. But, what does a performance of one the most iconic ballets look like in 2o23? With The Australian Ballet's Artistic Director David Hallberg at the helm,"it is important that Swan doesn’t just embody the traditional in today’s context. Yes, it is beautifully choreographed and the traditions in that context should be upheld. But, as with Wagner in the Opera world, productions should have a fresh contemporary eye while maintaining the ‘bones’ of the steps, which are so beautiful to dance and watch."
As a former student of ballet myself (disciplined, though never quite reaching a professional calibre), having the pleasure of watching Hallberg transform the work to occupy a modern space is nothing short of fascinating. Embracing a more modern stage craft – including elements such as lighting, costumes and set design – the artistic director has managed to balance contemporary visual storytelling while still honouring the roots of tradition shown in the choreographic context.
The result is a deeply moving display of texture, nuance and detail; creating an atmosphere that is less about the practice of watching and rather, more importantly, the immersive nature of feeling. However, unlike the traditional viewing of the ballet, CHANEL, who has partnered with The Australian Ballet as its Living Heritage partner, has invited us along to draw back the curtain a little further, experiencing the official dress rehearsal of Swan Lake before it officially opens to the public.
"It's important for us to share these more intimate moments as it allows us to show the work that goes into an opening night," shares Hallberg. "I am on the mic speaking to the dancers on the stage. We are stopping for the orchestra to get the timing just right. We can look at the lighting and making changes to highlight what we want. This is the opportunity to see the analytical eye that goes into a production. Everything is not beautiful at the ballet during these times..." Which, if you ask me, offers an element of charm that can't be replicated in any other setting.
For Principal Artist Sharni Spencer, who portrays the character of Odette/Odile, it's the emotive orchestral score that helps her to channel this power.
"The music really does it all for you! It takes you there naturally, it makes the emotions you are feeling stronger and more visceral – it’s so powerful. You have to let go a little to find it, but when that happens, it just translates into your body naturally."
While this is not Spencer's first role in Swan Lake, it is her first time performing the principal role of Odette/Odile, an opportunity she tells me has been incredibly challenging, but deeply rewarding. "Technically it is very hard, requiring a lot of control and precision, but also the artistic side of having to portray both the white and black swan – Odette who is vulnerable, gentle, and pure and then the villain’s accomplice Odile who is charmingly deceitful, charismatic, and evil. It is a huge ballet and physically very demanding."
True to the company's ethos and direction, Hallberg encourages the members of his company to look to the past to inform the future. With a piece like Swan Lake – which has been performed for hundreds of years – this archive of inspiration is plentiful; an honouring that is possible due to partners like CHANEL who have supported the development and creation of a digital patrimony to house the essential archival assets accumulated over the company’s 60 year history. For this year's performance, the company is performing Anne Woolliams’ version from 1977, which has been reimagined by Hallberg.
"We had many coaches who were all former ballerinas having performed Swan Lake. They prepared us and guided us; Sylvie Guillem, Marilyn Rowe (who was the original Odette) and Kirsty Martin," shared Spencer. "I hope the audience can see the respect and care taken to preserve this Swan Lake, but also feel something new and fresh, they feel something that is alive and current, something that still moves them in today world."
Part of fostering this archive is also the commitment to growing it, and for this season, the company entrusted Sydney-based videographer Henry Cousins with the task of capturing a unique behind-the-scenes perspective of the various components that continue to foster Swan Lake's legacy.
"Digital capturing is a great tool to use in our art form as it is so visual. What is seen on stage can be viewed live in one context, but then digitally through a completely different lens. It can capture moments that people just don’t see in a show, which can bring people along a more intimate ride with the artist," shared Hallberg.
You can watch the intimate behind-the-scenes video of the making of Swan Lake, exclusively, below. And if you haven't had the chance to see the performance in real life, head to The Australian Ballet's website for final tickets, now.