The great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky only turned his talents to scoring ballet three times. While he may not have added to the art form prolifically, his influence on dance is hard to overstate. That trio of ballets – Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and, most famous of all, Swan Lake – have become by far the most performed works in the canon, inspiring countless revivals, interpretations and reimaginings since their premieres more than 140 years ago.
Choreographer and artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Jean-Christophe Maillot, believes it’s the psychological complexities beneath the fairytale façade that makes Tchaikovsky’s ballets, and Swan Lake in particular, so enduringly popular.
“These ballets are the strongholds of the repertoire; they are the foundation of dance, they are its history,” he explains. “To tackle Tchaikovsky, it’s necessary to have a little fear – his creations shaped our ideas of classical ballet. Swan Lake has always fascinated me. It’s more of a sombre story than it seems. It brings our fears to the surface; our impulses and our nightmares.”
Maillot’s unique retelling of Swan Lake, which is coming to Melbourne this June thanks to the Australian Ballet, channels these impulsive fears into a dark and brooding staging. Retitled LAC, it discards many of the more hackneyed aspects of the original fable to reposition the narrative. No longer merely a magical romance, it explores a more multifaceted conflict between two ambitious mothers, as they vie to marry off their children for power rather than love.
His refocused setting of Swan Lake also elevates the most pivotal moment in the original story.
“Since I was a child, I have always been intrigued by the animalism and anthropomorphism that has permeated art history. I thought about the moment in Swan Lake when the swan transforms herself into a woman – a moment that is usually never seen on stage. It was the moment that contained everything I wanted to show in LAC, because in my opinion this transfiguration is central to the meaning of Swan Lake. It is in this instant, when the swan first returns to her female form, that her desires are reborn and she can finally touch the being that she loves.”
Now no longer waiting in the wings (pun intended), realising the swan’s transformation on stage would require a careful collaboration between the choreography and other stage crafts, most notably the costumes by award-winning designer Phillipe Guillotel.
“Thanks to those designs we were able to rise to the challenge of showing the hybrid nature of the characters while remaining subtle,” Maillot says. “Transforming a ballerina into an animal is a delicate task which can quickly turn absurd. Phillipe, by deconstructing the classical tutu, achieves it in the most effortlessly beautiful way.”
While Swan Lake’s success with audiences has barely waned in over a century, there are now so many versions exploring various emotional, stylistic and historical perspectives, it might be reasonable to assume there’s little left to discover. Maillot begs to differ.
“Its mysteries still live and choreographers must continue to interrogate them and propose new versions,” he insists. “These new interpretations must always echo the original ballet. Even if they depart from them or contradict them, they are another building block in their heritage.”
Maillot has a similar attitude towards LAC, which is now in its fifth year of touring.
“If I had to see the same thing at every performance it would make me weary. But ballets evolve. It’s the emotional relationships between humans that form the material of my ballets and this is volatile material that is always changing and cannot be exactly repeated. There are hundreds of ways to love, to hate, to be kind or be cruel.”
LAC is at Arts Centre Melbourne June 27 to July 6.