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At the ballet

 Paul Lloyd, retired features writer for the Adelaide Advertiser, has recently moved to the outback city of Port Augusta,  His last piece for Webdiary was Carmen to the country- the Great Experiment.  Here's his review of last night's broadcast.

Yeah, I know fairies are (temporarily) unfashionable. But the missus needs to escape into the ballet; and I have to confess to a weakness for some good music. Mr and Mrs Jack Spratt? Friends had spare tickets, so we got into the show that had been booked out for weeks in Port Augusta.

Inadvertently, but perhaps appropriately as it turned out, I even upgraded the regular thongs to sandals for the Occasion. The Swan Lake.

And it was an Occasion for the well-dressed in the Augusta Cinema, the live relay by satellite earlier tonight from the Sydney Opera House. Ha-ha, in Sydney they can’t just park the Toyota out the front. Here we can.

This is the Crossroads of Australia at the head of the Spencer Gulf, intersection of national highways and railways, of water and gas pipelines, fibre optic cables, botany from north, east and west, and 30 or so different Aboriginal cultures, the focus of the songlines. It might be one of the most redneck towns on the continent; but it’s also one of the prettiest, set in space and light where the Flinders Ranges touch  the sea. And there’s clearly a demand for traditional high culture.

After the success of the live relay last month of the opera Carmen, The Swan Lake – the most frequently performed ballet in European history - has been a talking point about town. Some of the talk dismissed “that interlekshal stuff’. But, hey, they were talking about it. The local Aboriginal radio station on Monday night played some of  Tchaikovsky’s music for The Swan Lake.

Tonight was a fabulous performance on the big screen. The full house in Michelle and Roger Coles’s cinema applauded each setpiece just as though it were actually on the stage. Popcorn cygnets imitated the ballerinas in the intervals.

Just as I’d been thinking ballet was an effete European artform, there were two eye-openers. First, people still do love ballet, not just the matrons but also the kiddies. As various Aboriginal people have been trying to tell whitefellers for long time, dance does have storytelling powers. Second, Graeme Murphy’s choreography for this Australian Ballet performance, which has already toured the world, is dramatic, intricate and passionate – and certainly original.

He’s thrown away the traditional story of this dance set to music.

You’d like a story? As conceived in Russia in the 1870s, The Swan Lake is a Teutonic fairytale about this prince Siegfried who rejects his mum’s attempts to line him up with a nice bride and goes off hunting in the bush. A flock of swans fly by. He falls in love with the leader, Odette. But the evil Baron von Redbeard had put a spell on Odette, making her a swan, able to show her womanly characteristics only by night. There’s a lot of black and white in this yarn. The spell can be broken only if a man loves her faithfully. Remember that word.

After a lot of lovey-dovey dancing, Siegfried is back at the castle for yet another party. Old Redbeard show up with the beautiful Odile, who looks uncannily like Odette, only she’s dressed in black. Rich kid Siegfried feels the hormones rising. Whoops. He’s been unfaithful. Redbeard chuckles.  Silly guilty Siegfried drown himself in the Swan Lake. Odette does likewise.

There have been variations in the last 132 years. The Chinese prefer a happy ending, with love conquering evil. The Russians are now following. On the internet you can find porno versions, a Barbie doll animation  and some quite lovely Japanese animes.

Graeme Murphy has revolutionised The Swan Lake into the House of Windsor. In a sort of 20th century love triangle, Siegfried marries Odette (read: Prince Charles marries Diana) with the disapproval of his mum (the Queen). But he thinks he loves  “Redbeard” (read:  Camilla). Love? Duty? Odette goes mad and drowns herself in a lake.

I saw three problems.

First, Murphy has said, by using the Charles-Diana story, he wanted “realism” for contemporary audience.

How realistic? Why not use drum and bass samples for the music?   Cut all that unrealistic prancing about? Get them talking? Make it into a TV mini-series?

The world is too much with us already, Graeme. We want theatre for escape from reality.

Second, as a matter of presentation in terapixels, this “realism” thinking converts so much traditional ballet into mime play and gymnastics. The cameras treat it like a football match. The orchestral sound is over-miked and over-compressed. It’s like cheap cheese.

These may be the present fashions; but for all that it was a great orchestral performance under conductor Nicolette Fraillon, a ravishing reading of Tchaikovsky’s score. Thin metallic strings, perhaps, but terrific winds and percussion. And she knew just what chords to linger on.

That brings me to the third problem. Tchaikovsky, who was one the four best musicians of the known European tradition, was a symphonic writer.  He had a large attention span. Despite the controversy at the time, The Swan Lake, which he wrote at age 36,  was the first ballet score in history to use music of symphonic proportions. Not just rhythms and moods, but also contrapuntal melodies and themes, were put to dramatic purposes. For example, late in Act One, Tchaikovsky opens one of his greatest and most plaintive oboe melodies when Siegfried sees Odette.  This “love theme”, like a Wagnerian leitmotif, is used again and again for dramatic purposes concerning Siegfried and Odette. But in Murphy’s production, it seemed to mean almost anything.

Perhaps I am being too conservative in a post-modernist era; but I felt Murphy the choreographer, for all the intricately masterful attention he could pay to the details of the music, and for all the joking ways he paid occasional homage to the traditions of The Swan Lake – such as the delicious dance of the cygnets -  had placed himself above the composer in the bigger picture.

For all that, it was in the end a fairytale. Not the traditional Teutonic fairytale. But a Windsorian fairytale. So perhaps there is still some magic in the world.

And unless you’re prepared to spend $120,000 on a projector for your home cinema, not to mention the problems of rights, such as the Augusta Cinema have, or unless you’re prepared to spend a certain proportion of that on going to Sydney for the live show, there’s no other way that this transitory town of Port Augusta can really feel part of what might be a renaissance of a profound example of European culture.

Port Augusta had been declared by the South Australian Government to be The regional centre of culture in 2008. In the last few weeks, we’ve had sell-outs for the opera Carmen, for the Fringe shows and for State Opera singing. In the next few weeks there are country music and jazz festivals and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra playing (music) on the golf course. Yeah, thongs or sandals,  I guess I’ve got to believe in fairies.

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Interesting piece Paul

Thanks for your article, Paul.

A drum'n'bass score for Swan Lake, you say?

Might end up with the "swans" moving something like this!

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