Swans in heat

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday October 21, 2014
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Why is it so hot in here? Isn't it hot in here? Am I coming down with �"? Oh no, it's just the first act of Swan Lake embarrassing me again. The prince has just snubbed his bride at their wedding. She's desperate, she's throwing herself at the best man, she's kissing him! She looks at the prince �" wait, oh my God, she's wrapping her legs around the guy!

The Australian Ballet's Swan Lake, presented in Berkeley by Cal Performances last weekend, had much to admire �" but since the first act kept giving me hot flashes, I stumbled out into the lobby at first intermission in a state of shock. I'd been prepared for a wacko Swan Lake. There have been so many recastings, re-set in the Regency as a bodice-ripper, or in an insane asylum, or in Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein, and some great ones: Matthew Bourne's homoerotic version with all-male swans. I thought I was grownup enough for an acceptably risque updating of Princess Odette to Princess Diana (which, in fact, Bourne's version alluded to). But Graeme Murphy's excruciating staging had so much bad behavior (very well-mimed by the performers), I kept flashing on my father's terrifying mother mortifying us all at family gatherings. I was in shock when the curtain came down, and though the next three acts sort of made-up for the ballet's first impression, it was nearly 3 a.m. before I could get to sleep.

Swan Lake is a Gesammtkunstwerk: when Tchaikovsky wrote it, in reaction against Wagner's Lohengrin, he was still green in judgment, and he wrote way more than he needed to, or than any choreographer has ever been able to use. But the music is magnificently doom-laden, moodier than any adolescent, and the Berkeley Symphony, conducted by the Australian Ballet's Music Director Nicolette Fraillon, made that music pulse, throb and break our hearts. When they got to Act III, they played the section that Balanchine re-choreographed as his Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux more ravishingly than I have ever heard it played by anybody.

The company has every gift as players: they can act, they use their whole bodies when they dance, and they have very strong technique. Best of all, they all have a lovely softness and ease in the way they move, which makes them seem like a world unto itself. They cast a spell. Their toe shoes are silent, the women's feet kiss the floor, and their arms betray no anxiety or strain, but rather extend beseechingly, like wings. Men and women alike have great power in reserve, and move elegantly, on a large scale. The men do this even in Olympic-scale efforts, lifting each other and the women heroically, with a generous spirit and no visible effort. The guys do tremendous lifts, tosses and catches as if they were nothing. You want her to run backwards, then throw herself at me, and I should stop her in mid-air? No problem. You want her to lie down on top of me, and I'll press her up in a planche to arms-length? No problem. At one point in the first-act wedding scene, party guests were getting thrown overhead as if they were nine-months-old, and the ladies were as delighted with it all as if they were toddlers.

In short, they have energy to burn. This is not polite dancing. They've got power-lifting, ballet, and contemporary techniques; they can slide across the floor like Gene Kelly, kick like Bruce Lee. Moreover, they dance the classic steps �" pas de basques, temps de fleches �" with the classic lilt and easy flow of weight that belong to these steps. The principals can pout like Meryl Streep, seethe like Glenn Close, do the slow burn like Alan Rickman, and gloat like Snow White's wicked stepmother. I wish I hadn't had to see them in an indefensible interpretation of this classic, but I have great respect for the performances they gave us.

The principals were very fine indeed: they were Madeleine Eastoe (Odette), Kevin Jackson (Prince Siegfried), and the slinky Lana Jones as the Prince's gloating mistress. The courtiers often overacted, though the doctor (Tristan Message) who came at the end of Act I to take our fragile heroine away to the sanatorium (in a direct quote from Streetcar Named Desire: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers") had a wonderful tenderness and authority about him. And the necessary authority of the Queen was wonderfully rendered by guest artist Shane Carroll.

I'd love to see them again. They have a legendary production of Don Quixote. May they bring that next time.