REVIEW: Black Swan, White Swan (RNZB)

Review by Brigitte Knight

[Grand Rapids in NZ]

Black Swan, White Swan was commissioned in 2012 by Artistic Director Patricia Barker for her previous company, Grand Rapids Ballet, Michigan. It is a modern, minimalist reimagining of the iconic classical ballet Swan Lake first performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, Russia in the 1870s. Slovakian choreographer Mário Radačovsky retains the characters, two act structure and score but not the traditional narrative, exploring instead his own battle with cancer and ensuing emotional journey. The Royal New Zealand Ballet is able to seamlessly import Grand Rapids Ballet content to New Zealand stages; current RNZB Ballet Masters Laura McQueen Schultz and Nicholas Schultz danced the leads in the original production and staged the current one, Barker’s husband Michael Auer provides the audio visual design, and a small number of dancers have come via Grand Rapids Ballet.

The concept of reinterpreting classical ballets is not new internationally, but these works are infrequently available for New Zealand audiences. Some scores and ballets lend themselves to evolution and reworking; Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring, for example, remains vital and current thanks in part to interpretations by choreographers such as Pina Bausch, Angelin Preljocaj, Javier de Frutos (Milagros), and Akram Khan (iTMOi or in the mind of igor). Swan Lake is no exception, and has inspired some masterful reimaginings including Matthew Bourne’s gothic, predominantly-male version, Alexander Ekman’s with new score and stage covered in water, Matz Ek’s disturbing, contorted classical imagery, David Dawsons’s humanist approach rich with characterisation, and Michael Keegan-Dolan’s contemporary, confronting, wild Loch na hEala. Conversely, restaging a classic can also result in superficial parody (Les Ballet Trocadero Swan Lake) or skilful yet artless gymnastics (Great Chinese State Circus Swan Lake). Radačovsky, therefore, is not in uncharted territory with Black Swan, White Swan.

The staging of Black Swan, White Swan utilises a variety of modern conventions: dancers stepping beyond the proscenium arch, extended use of stillness, musical staging, choreography continuing after the music has stopped, dancers touching the main curtain and challenging the stability of the fourth wall. Minimalist set design by Slovakian Marek Holly compliments Radačovsky’s approach, utilising neon, reflective panels and pale tarquets to create depth and movement. Costumes by Patricia Barker are thoroughly modern, and the choreographer has not included tutus or pointe in his ballet. The movement vocabulary is largely contemporary, juxtaposed with fleeting images of classical line rather than integrated with it. The classical moments are easy to appreciate like this, serving as a reminder of the remarkable ability of these artists to subjugate human movement for avian in a heartbeat. Radačovsky retains little of the original choreographic structure of Swan Lake, however, the four cygnets and four big swans remain, dancing new, joyful choreography.

Kihiro Kusukami as Rothbart dances with technical clarity and enviable stamina. His gaze is directed to the audience infrequently, but when shared it is powerful and cool. Kusukami’s elevation and attention to detail is excellent, and I wish we saw even more of this in black swan white swan. Onstage for the entire performance, including pre and post act overspill, Paul Mathews as Siegfried undertakes an enormous task with this reworked role. He shoulders the majority of the pas de deux work, along with carrying the narrative and emotional weight of the ballet. Siegfried appears as the embodiment of Radačovsky onstage, and he is the protagonist of the work – relegating the roles of White Swan (Sara Garbowski) and Black Swan (Kirby Selchow) to plot devices for his own narrative arc. Selchow is a charismatic and dynamic performer, and she is well-suited to the dual role of Siegfried’s (nameless) wife/Black Swan. She moves swiftly within the choreography, ensuring she brings to the role the individualised movement quality that it requires. I do miss the virtuosic solo elements of traditional Odile role, particularly the fouettés that are virtually inseparable from Tchaikovsky’s tailor-made score and celebrate the athleticism and strength of women principal dancers. Garbowski as Siegfried’s (nameless) doctor/White Swan is similarly well cast; fluid, romantic and controlled in her interpretation of choreographic detail.

Black Swan, White Swan’s ensemble of swans deliver some cleverly-designed tableaux and demandingly-long stillness. Smaller group choreography is varied and interesting, although whole-ensemble unison is not as cohesive as expected. Amongst the flock of swans, Leonora Voigtlander and Madeleine Graham shine with expressive strength, effortless grace. The corps de ballet also feature as party guests in both acts, injecting a generous serving of humour into the performance. Radačovsky’s intention of confusing the line between reality and fantasy could be further developed, however, Rothbart as the personification of illness is very clear. The performance concludes after an unexpected finale effect that it would be unfair to give away here. The modern, masculinised Black Swan, White Swan may not satiate traditionalists, but it is warmly received on opening night with the most raucous applause given to the superbly sinister Kusukami.

Black Swan, White Swan played the Opera House, Wellington, 31 May to 2 June. It next plays Auckland’s Bruce Mason Centre 7 to 8 June and the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre 20 to 22nd June.  The tour continues in Palmerston North, Tauranga, Christchurch, Dunedin and Blenheim. Details see RNZB

Choreography: Mário Radačovsky
Music: Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Costume Design: Patricia Barker
Set Design: Marek Holly
Audio Visual Design: Michael Auer
Lighting Design: Randall G Chiarelli

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  1. 2019 Dance Calendar with review links for April – June – allmyownwords

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