Ballet Review: Swan Lake, West Australian Ballet

Iconic, accomplished, and ambitiously inventive, this is a Swan Lake for Western Australia. 

The final production of the West Australian Ballet’s 70th anniversary year is a unique reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This beloved classical ballet has a rich and respected history, the chronology of which is dwarfed in comparison with the traditional Noongar Black Swan dance, three key sections of which have remained unchanged for thousands of years. In this groundbreaking world premiere, West Australian Ballet performs Swan Lake alongside the Gya Ngoop Keeninyarra (One Blood Dancers) in a brand new version of this timeless classical ballet. 

Consisting of four acts and a prologue, this Swan Lake opens to a stage containing only Indigenous performers. It retains the classical elements audiences love and expect, merged with Indigenous aspects such as the Black Swan dance and the Noongar story of how the swan got its feathers.

These aspects are reflected in the storyline and costumes, creating an ambitious fusion of Aboriginal and European artforms. Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella consulted with Ballardong Whadjuk Noongar Leader and Guide, Barry McGuire, on all aspects of the production, working in synergistic harmony to synthesise innovation and tradition.

McGuire appears as Boodja Wiirrn, the Spirit of the Land. Creative Associate Kyle Morrison plays Mowadji, a Noongar Elder, who tries to connect two cultures. Baron von Rothbart is a non-existent antagonist in this version, having been replaced by a shapeshifting businessman/Eagle named William Greenwood (Matthew Lehmann).

The former Royal Prince Siegfried has become Sebastian Hampshire (Oscar Valdes), a wealthy young settler who is friends with Mowadji. John Hampshire (Christian Luck) is Sebastian’s father, who disapproves of the aforementioned friendship, and wants his son to marry Odile. Odette/Odile –  notoriously the hardest ballerina role in classical ballet – has been split for this production, with Kiki Saito as the former and Chihiro Nomura as the latter. 

The prologue opens to the sound of tapping sticks, as six Gya Ngoop Keeninyarra, led by Mowadji, hear the voice of Boodja Wiirrn. When their dance ends they welcome Sebastian into their fold, and Mowadji tells the story of a white swan attacked by an Eagle, as music rises from the orchestra pit.  

Act I begins at Fremantle Harbour, during a time of peace between Indigenous Peoples and British colonialists. The set is a shipyard with an oceanic horizon; docks, ships, and baskets of goods bring the scene to life. Strings sing and swell as dancers appear, with corsets, puffy cleeves, and waistcoats conveying colonial time and place.

William Greenwood and John Hampshire want their respective progeny to marry one another. Odile consents, but Sebastian does not, expressing sadness to his friend, Mowadji.

Act II takes place along the beautifully painted banks of the Swan River. Sebastian pursues the white swan, Odette, but there are no crossbows in this interpretation. A stunning pas de deux builds trust between the two, but enrages the wedge-tailed eagle under whose control Odette is trapped. Sebastian vows that no magic will keep him away from her, but the Eagle appears and the swans abscond.

Tjahkai Dewar, Tjiirdm McGuire, Kyle Morrison and Jeeomara McGuiire. Photo: Bradbury Photography

The Eagle rips out Odette’s feathers, which fall from above before settling around her motionless body like a pool of white blood. Six Gya Ngoop Keeninyarra surround her, black feathers in hand, ready to help heal the fallen swan.

Act III is set outside Government House, with an outdoor party replacing the traditional ballroom. A gradual alteration of lighting effectively simulates the setting of the sun. The opulent set boasts hanging candelabras, columns, curtains, flags, and black swan emblems. It is Sebastian’s birthday. Attendees are dressed in muted pastels of lavender, blue, and yellow, drawing extra attention to the Neapolitan dancers in their vibrant shades of blue, red and white.

Odile appears in a dramatic white cloak; Sebastian believes her to be Odette. Principal dancers Nomura and Valdes are hypnotising as Odile and Sebastian in the Black Swan Pas de Deux, during which Odile seduces Sebastian into breaking his vow to Odette. 

Act IV boasts the strongest scenes, in which fog and long lengths of black cloth make waves across the stage. Tragedy strikes with dramatic spins and the appearance of drowning, powerfully combining timeless Indigenous song with Tchaikovsky’s haunting music as the ballet moves towards its emotional finale. 

Read: Dance review: Embrace

Unlike other incarnations of this ballet, Odette is the sole white swan, in acknowledgement of the black swans of the Swan River – the McGuire family totem. Odette stands out all the more, surrounded by the stunning black-swan costumes of the corp de ballet.

The corps move in perfect eye-pleasing unison throughout, capturing swanlike movements with impressive pointe work and fluid arm movements. The principals are incredible, particularly Valdes and Saito, who expertly communicate with the audience through the disciplined yet emotional language of ballet. Intoxicating to observe, their every penché, plié, and fouetté is infused with precision, grace, and galvanic finesse.

The dramatic tension in Tchaikovsky’s score – artfully performed by the West Australian Philharmonic Orchestra – combines with Krzysztof Pastor’s polished choreography to evoke awe throughout the entire performance, with the memorable melody of the oboe singing its swan theme, and a flawless orchestra breathing magic into the spellbinding prowess of the dancers. 

This unique reimagining of Swan Lake, set along the banks of WA’s Swan River, is a must-see for ballet enthusiasts, arts aficionados, and proud Whadjuk Noongar Peoples with connections to the land on which this remarkable story is set. Iconic, accomplished, and ambitiously inventive, this truly is a Swan Lake for Western Australia. 

Swan Lake
West Australian Ballet
Artistic Director: Aurélien Scannella
Choreographer: Krzysztof Pastor
Noongar Artist, Leader & Guide: Barry McGuire
Assistant Choreographer: Simonetta Lysy
Set Designer: Phil R. Daniels
Costume Designer: Charles Cusick Smith
Lighting Designer: Jon Buswell
Librettist: Krzysztof Pastor
Music: Pyotr Ilyich TchaikovskyConductor: Jessica Gethin
Orchestra: West Australian Philharmonic Orchestra

Cast includes: Oscar Valdes, Kiki Saito, Chihiro Nomura, Barry McGuire, Kyle Morrison, Matthew Lehmann, Christian Luck, Gya Ngoop Keeninyarra
Tickets: $28-$202

Swan Lake will be performed at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth until 11 December 2022.

Nanci Nott is a nerdy creative with particular passions for philosophy and the arts. She has completed a BA in Philosophy, and postgraduate studies in digital and social media. Nanci is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, and is working on a variety of projects ranging from novels to video games. Nanci loves reviewing books, exhibitions, and performances for ArtsHub, and is creative director at Defy Reality Entertainment.