Swan Lake: A right royal romp

The Australian Ballet's 'Swan Lake' imagines Charles and Diana as the doomed lovers. What a twist, says Jenny Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

In the first half of 2005, British audiences have already flocked to revivals of Anthony Dowell's 1986 production for the Royal Ballet, a 10th-anniversary run of Matthew Bourne's male-swan version and a bruising modern dance import called Birdbrain. A fortnight from now, the Kirov opens a two-week London season with its Soviet-era production, and next month the young British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon headlines the Edinburgh Festival with his staging for Pennsylvania Ballet.

But next up, with 13 performances in Cardiff and London, is the production that has done for the popular status of ballet in Australia what Matthew Bourne's has done in the UK. Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake, staged to mark the 40th anniversary of Australian Ballet, has been reaping awards. Yet it doesn't subvert expectations so much as gratify the old ones. Here are tutus and spectacle, a moonlit lake and a cast of 70, plus a musical score not just near-complete but also restored to the order Tchaikovsky intended. The novelty is that Murphy has swapped the flaky Germanic folk-tale plot about an enchanted swan-maiden betrayed by a prince for a royal tragedy very much closer to home.

Australian Ballet's David McAllister had little idea, when he commissioned the piece, that he would end up with a Charles-and-Diana blockbuster. "I thought Graeme would probably go for a staging of the Ivanov-Petipa choreography but muck around with the first and third act, which is pretty much what everyone does," he says. "His first idea was to set it in pre-Revolution Russia with Rasputin as the Rothbart character. Then there was an idea of basing it on the two rival ballerinas who performed the first production in 1877. But nothing really gelled until we said, 'OK, let's strip it down, what is Swan Lake really about? It's about betrayal, it's about royalty, it's about royal duty and it's about love.' The story was under our nose."

But why "muck around" with the plot at all? McAllister, a leading dancer with Australian Ballet for 18 years before becoming director, says: "When we did our old Swan Lake, I never felt that 19th-century Russian culture sat well on us. Australia's a young country, and perhaps there's more of a class system now but it's economic, not based on birth and privilege. We still see ourselves as egalitarian and this thing of princes and pomp and ceremony is all very alien. I always felt in Swan Lake that if you scratched the surface you could see we were pretending."

For Murphy it was a case of finding a story "that I didn't have to bend my disbelief - my intelligence, actually - to believe in. I wanted to give those characters flesh and blood and real reasons for the way they behave, not revert to a witch or a magic owl every time I couldn't find a narrative solution."

Needless to say, the production doesn't follow the royal story blow for blow, but there is a prince called Siegfried, a fragile young bride called Odette, and a Baroness von Rothbart who has some former claim to the prince's heart and conspires to have Odette confined to a clinic on the shores of Lake Geneva. "Of course, it's not actually about what happened to the royal marriage; it's about a relationship," says McAllister. "Even that was only a starting point, but because the dancers had an education in that whole story it gives imaginative depth to the way they inhabit the characters." Even without identifying labels, in the opening wedding party scene it's not hard to spot the inappropriate duchess and the frosty mother-in-law.

The potency of Tchaikovsky's music is often cited as the main reason for the ballet's popularity, and the precise form of the score was an important factor in Murphy's thinking. What struck him about Tchaikovsky's original draft was that "it's so complete, so symphonic, so story-telling, that it seemed quite wrong to meddle". What will surely surprise knowledgeable spectators most of all is how well the new scenario fits the dramatic shape of the score.

But the power of music doesn't explain the appeal of the central imagery. For all that contemporary rewrites like Murphy's tweak the story to their own ends, they still revolve around the action of a large body of dancers whose movements suggest those of swans. Murphy points out that, early in its performance history, Swan Lake was regarded as carrying a message of revolution. "It was seen as a story about shaking off the trappings of imperialism and yearning for something wild and free. But it also belongs to the long tradition of bird-myth that permeates every culture. There's the Asian bird woman, the Eastern European firebird, Leda and the Swan, and angels. I have a theory that yearning to fly is so much part of our past that it's almost genetically imprinted."

Australian Ballet's 'Swan Lake', Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (0870 040 2000) 13 to 16 July; and Coliseum, London WC2 (020-7632 8300) 20 to 24 July