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Review – Swan Lake – Royal New Zealand Ballet



St James Theatre


1 May 2024

Choreography: Russell Kerr after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Staging: Turid Revfeim
Set & Costume Design: Kristian Fredrikson
Lighting: Jon Buswell
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: Conductor Hamish McKeich

Reviewed by Brigitte Knight


Photographs by Stephen A'Court

It is often said that ballet is a hand-me-down art; you cannot learn it from a textbook or a YouTube tutorial, it must be passed on from teacher to student, from choreographer to dancer. Swan Lake, so beloved that it has become synonymous with the artform globally, is the jewel in the crown of classical ballet repertoire, and the dual role Odette/Odile is widely considered to be the pinnacle of a ballerina’s career. Simultaneously, the image of the ballerina/swan and Tchaikovsky’s iconic score are interwoven with popular culture, referenced, emulated, and even parodied everywhere from cinema to advertising. Mesmeric and somehow timeless, the magic of the swans at the moonlit lake may be responsible for drawing more children into dance than any other ballet, and it has been this way for generations.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Swan Lake is a heritage ballet of illustrious lineage, choreographed in 1996 by Russell Kerr QSM, ONZM (1930 - 2022) a pillar of dance in Aotearoa whose long life bequeathed a creative and choreographic legacy to the company (which has presented, to date, almost 700 performances of his works, and counting). If the number of revivals of Kerr’s production (2002, 2007, 2013) speak to the enduring success of the ballet, the heartfelt tributes and acknowledgements throughout the programme notes for Swan Lake cement it. To honour Kerr’s passing, the Royal New Zealand Ballet presents his Swan Lake once more, this time under the care, aroha, and guidance of stager Turid Revfeim. A dancer in Kerr’s original 1996 production, and Ballet Mistress for the revivals, Revfeim speaks in the programme of the responsibility he felt in recreating Swan Lake, and how this weight now lands on her shoulders to facilitate his choreographic intention “…to make the music visible, to retain passages of original choreography without making the ballet a museum piece, but not destroying choreographic credibility by too forceful an updating…”. Guest Character Artist and former principal dancer Paul Matthews has come out of retirement to appear as Wolfgang, a role performed until now only by the late Sir Jon Trimmer KNZM, MBE (1939 – 2023). 

Swan Lake opens to a full house, exhilaratingly accompanied by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich in a powerful and immersive performance of Tchaikovsky’s tailor-made score. Richly toned set and costume design by Kristian Fredrikson delivers lavish detail (no two costumes in Acts I or III are exactly alike) befitting a production of this magnitude. I am fortunate to see two of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s four casts of Swan Lake in opening week, enjoying the nuanced interpretation of the various roles by different company artists. Revfeim’s evocation of a language beyond words secures an emotionally resonant, vibrantly animated, and beautifully refined narrative with each performance. From the moment the curtain rises on Act I festivities-in-progress, the entire company appears imbued with new energy, heart, characterisation, and investment; the audience is captivated. 

The opening night cast led by principals Mayu Tanigaito as Odette/Odile and Laurynas Vėjalis as Siegfried offers more resoundingly delightful and satisfying performances than it is possible to mention individually. Among the many highlights, soloist Shaun James Kelly dances the Jester with physical and emotional generosity and engaging projection, the Pas de Trois of Catarina Estévez Collins, Kihiro Kusukami, and Katherine Minor is spirited and celebratory, and artist Brandon Reiners as Rothbart is strong and controlled. The four Cygnets danced by Tessa Karle, Cadence Barrack, Monet Galea-Hewitt, and Catarina Estévez Collins are an audience favourite, Kirby Selchow and Macy Cook in the Spanish and Hungarian Act III divertissements are electrically detailed, and coolly elegant, respectively, Kate Kadow is effervescent and commanding as one of the three Princesses, and the corps men deliver vivacious unison, clarity, and elevation in Acts I and III. The lion’s share of the ballet is carried by the corps Swans, and their ability to sustain pristine unison whilst establishing the emotional foundations for the ‘white’ Acts II and IV. The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s enchanting Swans are detailed and sensitive, mastering juxtaposed stillness and harmonious ensemble choreography with a grace that disguises rigorously demanding physical discipline. 

Swan Lake’s third night cast led by principal Kate Kadow as Odette/Odile and artist Brandon Reiners as Siegfried creates more opportunities for dancers to make their mark on the production. Kadow dances the roles of Odette and Odile with nuance and thought, generous projection, beautifully original and effective engagement of the shoulders and upper torso to create characterisation and contrast, and delivers the Act III fouettés with control. Reiners dances Siegfried with regal energy, pleasing elevation, and considered, sensitive partnering. Of note, artist and newcomer Timothy Ching brings mischievous energy, engaging freshness, and satisfying elevation to his performance as the Jester; soloist Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson interprets Rothbart with singular avian speed and angular detail; and Gretchen Steimle and Macy Cook dance Big Swans with elegance and sensitive symmetry. Laurynas Vėjalis, Ema Takahashi, Luke Cooper and Shaun James Kelly in the Act III divertissements and Mayu Tanigaito as a Princess are eye-catching, appealing, and enrich the storytelling of the ballet. Some very minor challenges with timing for some dancers in this cast will settle during the season, as will occasional lapses with small choreographic details and controlled landings.

Amongst an already majestic Swan Lake, the sparkling performances of Tanigaito and Vėjalis as Odette/Odile and Siegfried attain a level of artistry and technical prowess that is at times simply breath-taking. With sublime chemistry, rich and deeply intelligent characterisation, unparalleled attention to detail, boundless energy, and emotional generosity, these two principal dancers gift the audience with a genuinely moving experience. Tanigaito’s extension, finely-honed distinction of movement vocabulary between Odette and Odile, respect for the role, and absolute trust and release to her partner are just some of the ingredients in this artist’s glittering performance. Vėjalis, exquisite and at his best in the role, performs a fully realised and dynamic Siegfried, dancing with a new depth of expression and power of projection. Together, their chemistry is magnetic, their pas de deux work a masterclass in sensitivity and gentle, nuanced, responsive partnering. 

Following the deeply moving public memorial for Sir Jon Trimmer earlier this year, Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Swan Lake indicates recently appointed Artistic Director Ty King-Wall has a strong sense of the significance of our national ballet company, and the rich heritage he steps up to lead. A magnificent production, Revfeim’s staging of Swan Lake presents the Royal New Zealand Ballet looking the best they have in recent years; cohesive, energised, and resplendent in this taonga of ballet in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Photographs by Stephen A'Court


Review – Swan Lake – Royal New Zealand Ballet

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