‘Swan Lake’ stuns with engaging aesthetics at Zellerbach

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Passion, betrayal, madness and tragedy: This is the recipe for Graeme Murphy’s revamped version of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” which ran at Zellerbach Hall with the help of Cal Performances last week. Despite major departures from the classic ballet, it does not disappoint.

Founded in 1962, the Australian Ballet is still relatively young, but the company has gained global recognition for its diverse repertoire and fresh spins on classics tales. Its motto — “Caring for tradition, daring to be different ” — rings true for “Swan Lake.” While Murphy alludes to many tenets of the original ballet, he also situates the story in a more modern context, producing an effect that is grounded at times and ethereal at others.

“Swan Lake” opens with a charged, passionate love scene between Prince Siegfried (danced by the powerful Andrew Killian) and an unknown woman (Laura Tong). Later, it is revealed that this femme fatale is actually his lover. To the rest of the world, however, the prince is blissfully enamored with his innocent fiancee Odette (the scintillating Leanne Stojmenov). The love triangle that unfolds among the three principals (Odette, Prince Siegfried and the Baroness von Rothbart) is loosely based on the scandal of Princess Diana, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Fortunately, the setting and costumes are vague enough that no obvious allusions are made to the royal incident. Another radical change comes in the addition of the scheming Baroness, who intends to seduce the prince amid his impending nuptials. She artfully ensnares Prince Siegfried at his own wedding ball, in plain sight of the fragile and dismayed Odette.

The pas de trois that ensues is a genius melange of weaving and lifts, as Odette desperately tries to intercept the pair to win back her husband. Murphy’s innovative choreography shines most in these love-triangle scenes, in which the exquisite tension of their movements reveals the prince’s frustration and Odette’s despair.

It is her husband’s obvious devotion to the Baroness that ultimately drives Odette to insanity. Aside from her impeccable technique, Stojmenov commands the stage with expressive acting chops. Initially, Stojmenov’s Odettte seems tepid, but she gains force during her descent into madness, which is almost frightening in its fury and desperation. In this scene, Stojmenov performs a series of impressive hopping fouettes that pays homage to the triple fouette sequence in the original ballet.

Though Murphy maintains the integrity of the more traditional versions of “Swan Lake,” he does take some jarring creative liberties. For instance, Murphy reverted to the 1877 score instead of the 1895 revision that is used in most productions — so viewers used to the “Black Swan” music in the third act will be surprised when it appears in the first act. As a result of other musical cuts and rearrangements, there was discord between certain scenes and the score; Odette’s anguish at her husband’s infidelity was set to upbeat music and had the audience laughing.

But Stojmenov makes up for these musical inconsistencies with stunning lines and expressive acting. Killian, for his part, creates a realistic Prince Siegfried who is sympathetic for his emotional growth, despite initially heartless actions — though it would have been nice to see more from Killian in terms of technique; during the few moments that he was not lifting Stojmenov, Killian was given somewhat restricted choreography that did not seem to showcase his full range.

Nevertheless, the corps members, especially the swans, were breathtaking — gracefully mournful at times and delightfully effervescent at others. When paired with the wonderful music of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, the effect was that of sheer balletic bliss. As a whole, the Australian Ballet’s “Swan Lake” is a rewarding production not only for its stunning aesthetics but also for the humanity the story portrays.

Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected].