The Shanghai Ballet swooped into Melbourne for five shows only with Derek Deane’s Grand Version of Swan Lake. The story is told in four acts, and is a long show, often shown with two intervals depending on the running time. Deane’s version of the show opens on Princess Odette, who is kidnapped by the wicked Rothbart, a half man, half bird, evil sorcerer, who transforms her into a swan and enslaves her. Meanwhile, preparations are under way for Prince Siegfried’s birthday, who is reminded by his mother that he is now of marrying age and presented with a grand crossbow. Later in the day, Siegfried heads off to hunt a group of swans flying over head. Down by the lakeside, the Prince finds Odette, Queen of the Swans, and is captivated by her beauty. What follows is a cat and mouse game between Odette, the Prince and Rothbart, as he summons all of the swans to the lake to hide Odette, but she and the Prince find each other and swear their love and faithfulness (which is not the easiest thing to convey through dance, but is beautiful to watch).
Act 2 as the audience understands it (but part three of our story), following interval, opens on Siegfried’s birthday party, a grand celebration and the most energetic and bright part of the show. Rothbart and his daughter Odile, disguised as the Swan Queen turn up, which delights Siegfried, but following the tricky, he breaks his pledge of love to Odette, as he swears to be faithful to Odile, not realizing the trickery. The evil sorcerer is jubilant and shows Odette that the Prince has broken his promise to her, and the act ends with him running out to search for Odette. He finds her in Act four down by the lake, and begs for her forgiveness. A fight between Rothbart and the Prince ensues, but Odette can take it no longer and throws herself into the lake, drowning. Siegfried follows her, and Rothbart is destroyed by the power of their love. Naturally, they sail off on a boat into the new dawn as happily ever after.
I explain this all because Swan Lake is a beautiful but exceptionally long, drawn out and sort of hard to follow ballet- a program to be your guide is mandatory. Important things like the Queen’s arrival, present to Siegfried and discussion of marriage are displayed in a few comical, over the top gestures, pointing to the ring, and pointing to the Prince – we’d easier understand this if Beyonce explained it to us in her Single Ladies video clip. It’s impossible to know in this show that Odette and Siegfried both drowned and the spell is broken – Odette can be free to be not a swan in the afterlife. No one ever said ballet made sense, but it is ever so beautiful.
The show has been multi-cast, so on opening night we had the pleasure of watching Ako Kondo (guest dancer from Japan and Principal at the Australian Ballet) as Odette/ Odile and Wu Husheng, Principal Dancer at the Shanghai Ballet, as Siegfried. Both impeccable, incredibly graceful performers who tackle Derek Deane’s choreography with ease. Kondo is poise, graceful and flighty as the prima ballerina, with fantastic technique and her transformation into Odile, the Black Swan, is spectacular: a truly wonderful performer. Husheng is equally as talented and they make a dynamic pair, but Husheng is definitely more talented than the choreography he is given to work with, as are all of the male dancers in the show. They handle the movements almost lazily, and so Husheng and his male counterparts seem almost pantomime in comparison to the female ensemble and Kondo.
The female performers are a delight to watch, with serious form and incredible grace, and they look radiant and delighted to be on stage and to be performing here. The men are far less expressive but equally as talented, and the whole cast, particularly the ensemble has a slight case of sickled foot, where the foot is more curved than straight and pointed: it’s something that’s both dangerous and risks injury to the dancers but also looks a little sloppy. Without the emotional element to the show, only coming through some of the performers, it becomes harder to invest and follow the story. The Cygnet dance (dance des petites cygnes), possibly one of the most famous pieces of choreography in ballet , starts strong but perhaps due to nerves or lack of cues, the dancers anticipate too soon and end up at least two counts ahead of the music. They’re still perfectly in sync and look delightful, with a strong connection between the four dancers Meng Fanyu, Hu Pingting, Ding Chengjun and Zhao Meici, but the whole dance is thrown off by the timing, with half the dance occurring out of sync with Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music.
Costumes by Song Liang and Liu Li are absolutely divine and add splendor and grandeur to the whole piece, with rich, bright pieces that highlight the dancers movements, give them a good range of movement but are also stunning to look at.
With such an impressive and world renowned production crew, it’s disappointing that the show has so much room for improvement. On a venue note, the stage hasn’t been properly prepared for the dancers, leading to a rousing chorus of squeaks and scraping noises, and squeals on turns, particularly from the male dancers shoes but in the bigger swan numbers, even the point shoes make a huge amount of noise. It’s not ignorable, and despite being incredibly beautiful and incredible to watch, the mystic of the entire show gets cheapened by squeaks and a nails down a chalk board feeling.
It’s my first time at a big theatre, traditional ballet piece in as long as I can remember, and it’s disappointing to say that audience behavior at The Regent Theatre on opening night was borderline disgusting. Talking through out the show, the entr’actes to each act, the set change music and just the whole way through it, photographing and filming the show with blatant disregard for copyright infringement – one woman in front of me was not only taking photos, videos and Snap Chats but she also had the gall to show her friend next to her that she got a good shot, and flick through the options- right in the middle of the show. About 4 people per break for applause were told off by ushers for various reasons, usually phone use. I turned around to shush the people behind me more than 5 times- both adults and children. Now we may be coming into winter, and given there are no words and singing in this ballet, but the whole audience will be coming down from something after the amount of coughing, spluttering and sniffing heard during the delightful dancing. I nearly turned around and threw a packet of tissues at the lady behind me: if you’re sick, don’t make everyone else sick, cover your mouth and be discreet, I don’t need someone who is enjoying the ballet so much that she is leaned forward in her chair sniffing for 3 hours in my ear.
The stunning ballet plays in Melbourne for five shows only, closing 24th April. More information: https://www.shanghaiballet.com.au/