“Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake”
The Australian Ballet
State Theatre, Melbourne, Australia, June 25, 2013
If this work were a postcard I found whilst searching for collage material, I would see no room left in foreground, middle ground or background for me to play with. The scene is set, rendered perfect. Move on, it would say—for what can you add to what is already complete? What is already done? If you wanted to learn more of “Swan Lake,” is there more to glean here that you cannot already learn in reading about the ballet, or listening to the choreographer Graeme Murphy and creative associate Janet Vernon speak about their work in interview? Or better still, by seeing the ballet with your own eyes? Am I adding unnecessary noise—the equivalent of a theatre patron unwrapping a cough lozenge at an inopportune time in the stalls?
I attempt to cast the doubt aside and to shake off the weight that sits heavy on my own wings, and think then of what angle, what point of difference could I possibly have? Well, I have a home filled with bird books owing to Louise’s passion for birds that borders on mania. I have at my fingertips access to a continually growing library of books about parrots, ducks, flycatchers, bee-eaters, and superb mimics, the lyrebird. I am surrounded by a paper forest that when unwatched regenerates and grows. Surely, upon deeper exploration within such a forest a swan I will find. Moreover, I have a challenge before me, too, and if art is one thing it is a challenge; something I find irresistible and by conclusion, you can tell me if I passed. So this response to “Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake” I will draw up for my dad. He did not see the performance I saw on a Tuesday night with my mum, and to my understanding, he has not seen “Swan Lake” in any guise. So this will be for him, a little of what my mum and I saw recently at the State Theatre.
If only I were hiding under the cliffs,
In secret among the rocks,
And that Zeus might transform me
Into a flying bird
The mad beating of wings at your windowpane, a harbinger of death, the ultimate lost soul; a peacock’s feather in the house, unlucky you’ll be. Look to legends, folktales and fairytales and you’ve not much ground to cover before you find a bird referenced in someway. Nesting in sagas, parables, paintings, and roosting in song, the bird appears as a symbol awaiting human reading as many times as it does, I like to think, for its own clever and beautiful sake. Even in urban lands, where we can turn on the sun at any time of day or night, we read the signs in nature today. We may feel far removed from the natural world, but actually we never are. An eagle remains synonymous with triumph, still Agamemnon’s omen of victory (even though he was later murdered by his wife Clytemnestra on return from Troy). Curses, like chickens, come home to roost. Women brood like hens. Two in hand are better than one. A robin and a wren still are bound to misfortune, and should ‘an owl call your name, you’re doomed.’[ii] And swans, they mate for life, don’t they?
From the very beginning of this version of the Swan Lake tale, the wedding party of Prince Siegfried and Odette, we know this is not the case. We are greeted with a stage, beautiful and white, as if covered in ice or feathery down. The lake glows ice blue and guides our eyes to the foreground. Moments are suspended as the scene unfolds. The dancers move in altered time; sailing aloft in slow motion. Our eyes drink in the spectacle, darting from one character to the next as though we are also invited guests. Prince Siegfried’s solo, as all motion stops, conveys the anguish of the man torn between two, with each step reminding me of a bird caught in a farmers netted trap. Their every movement seals their fate, and release is not possible.
It is the sense of weightlessness, of flight, that we see in the choreography of Graeme Murphy, and in the costuming of Kristian Fredrikson in this production that made its debut in 2002. Although it has never since been out of the repertoire, this performance was my first. Clear parallels are drawn to the House of Windsor love triangle of recent days, replete with Diana’s shy tilt of the head, eyes cast upward. This “Swan Lake” is earthbound in this sense. In this reading, it is our story’s anchor. There is the human ache of the story, yet the movements are also keenly birdlike. Perhaps none more so than in Odette’s frantic flailing of arms-cum-wings as she realises her lover’s betrayal in act I. Sometimes she appears almost with tragic broken foot or wing, still drawn as if by magnet’s pull to her Prince Unfaithful. She folds over again and again, collapsing in on herself, and with wings crumpled and now made heavy with tears she offers up all her hurt and agony to him and for all to see. Confusion manifest. A mad whirligig of a bird one moment, sorrow-bound the next.
By the narrative familiar but presented anew, there is such lightness. But not lightness without ache. Never without ache. When we are presented with the heartbroken Odette committed to a sanatorium by Royal Command, at the beginning of act II, she moves as though part dancer, part bird, so convincing her portrayal of a wild bird trapped in the house, beating its wings at the glass. Clipped wing. Nature confined. Sedation required. One moment rocking herself to self-soothe, the next retreating to the “safe” confines of a corner. Against the tall white windows that serve as bars to the little box prison, her wings flap and beat. Such futility! If you have ever rescued an injured bird and taken it indoors, you know the choreography. Upon awaking from shock’s stupor, it tries to escapes the man-made confines, and it is heartbreaking to watch.
Beyond this, a backdrop of M.C. Escher’s Rippled Surface appears. A graphic that speaks of Odette’s mental state more than the sanatorium’s location. Once you take the story from its fairytale confines, the tragedy is given new meaning. Stepping inside her “frozen dream”[iii] state, we find ourselves now lakeside. Perpetual night! Liquid limbs! And the lake itself, that giant and central orb, is spectacular. It reminds me momentarily of Anish Kapoor’s work Sky Mirror (2006).
Aloft, birds look like parts of the sky
That have broken loose.
Alternatively angelic and stark,
They slide across the blue on wings…
–Diane Ackerman, Birds of a Feather[iv]
And how those swan maidens we see by frozen lake do fly. When first they appear, nesting upon the tilted surface, slowly emerging from slumber one by one, we see they are beautifully birdlike not bird. An arm raises, it has become a wing unfurling. No webbed feet here, but still perhaps a sense of furious legs spinning under the cool water’s surface. Gliding across the surface takes effort. Silent commotion perhaps best seen in the revolving door of swans that we see for but an instant. A formation that quickly gives way to a new shape. A triangle of swan maidens appear seated, their upper bodies swooping. Within this triangle formed, seven dancers, Odette included, fly so quick and furious one of them will surely take flight! The rapid succession of different shapes formed. Oh! to think of the box construction Joseph Cornell would have made for one of the dancers had he seen this production! (Created for and given as gifts to the dancers he admired, A Swan Lake for Tamara Toumanova: Homage to the Romantic Ballet (1946), is one of many works created, many of which were rejected and sent back. ‘The box dedicated to her…. contains another, smaller box with a window of blue glass, behind which a cutout of a swan from the photostat of an old lithograph drifts past a castle (thus echoing the ballet). The intricate box, lined with blue velvet, contains pieces of mirror mounted on the rear surface. The larger box features several white feathers… taken from one of Toumanova’s costumes…. Cornell would occasionally wait in the wings, scissors in hand, to snip bits from her ensembles.’[v])
But now, we are at act III, an evening with the Baroness. Now a ballroom; dark and smattered with gold. Our lake motif appears now as a mirrored ceiling to subtly reflect the crowds swirling below. Though we don’t know it yet, we are here to witness the Baroness von Rothbart’s pain. Everyone gets his or her serve, you see. The push-pull see-saw of her pas de deux with the Prince sees her rudderless. Her following solo so gut-wrenchingly sad after having witnessed the three in our triangle spin like tops, the Prince gravitating magnetically back to his true Odette. Why, it is as if the orchestra play on strings fashioned from her own body, such was the evident pull, pluck, and drag so beautifully portrayed. Her comeuppance public. Those in the ballroom look away. Her pain too excruciating. For one mad moment, illustrating a loss of control, her feet appear to dance in spite of her own desire echoing The Red Shoes and the time-old fable never to step in a fairy ring lest you’ll dance for eternity.
Our story ends at the lake, with yearning serving as our lure. A beautiful moon reflected on the water’s surface serves as our full stop. “Black gives way to white; torment to peace”[vi]. Having had chance to soar, I am returned to my seat in the theatre. The inevitable outcomes, hinted at by flash of black petticoat, that long had been laying wait.
[i] Graeme Gibson, The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany, (London: Bloomsbury, 2005)
[ii] Gibson, The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany, 2005
[iii] The Australian Ballet “Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake” synopsis from the performance cast sheet, June 25, 2013
[iv] Diane Ackerman, Birds of a Feather, featured in A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2001)
[v] Owen Edwards, “Pas de Deux: Joseph Cornell turned his obsession with a prima ballerina into art,” Smithsonian magazine, February 2007
[vi] Rose Mulready, “Odile – Ballet’s Best Bad Girl,” Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake programme (Melbourne: The Australian Ballet, 2013)