Twelve years after it hatched, Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake landed this week in the City of Angels. It’s the youngest of the three cygnets that burst from the nest late last century, radically re-imagining the Tchaikovsky classic ( after Mats Ek’s in 1987 and Matthew Bourne’s in 1995).

It’s also the tamest, as Murphy doesn’t reach for Ek’s muscular modernism, nor Bourne’s satirical take. But the Australian’s fluid, whimsical and even quirky choreography does still signal a permanent break from the Petipa-Ivanov inspired shell, into a modern (if not quite postmodern) sensibility.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson © Lisa Tomasetti
Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson
© Lisa Tomasetti
The late Kristian Fredrikson’s sets and costumes give form and color to this new world. After a half-nude interlude in a black bedchamber with Baroness von Rothbart (who also embodies Odile), Siegfried rushes off to wed Odette – in the gazebo of a lakeside park, while guests in morning coats and long dresses cavort under the pastel sunshine of Seurat and Signac. The newyweds’ pas de deux quickly crumbles, and the disillusioned bride – unable even to engineer a pas de trois 'arrangement' – collapses. She’s led away by a dark-suited doctor (another Rothbart remnant) and two swan-wimpled nuns. Act II finds her in a stark white sanatorium, where a sadistic 'water cure' attempt fails, and a dutiful visit from Siegfried plunges her into delusion. The set then opens to a startling black and silver scrim (Escher’s eerie Rippled Surface, trees reflected in disturbed waters). This lifts in turn to reveal the lake, deep blues and silvers, with a drift of white-tutu’ed swans who help Odette dance her fantasies. In Act III, she returns as a ghostly apparition to upset a party given by Siegfried and the Baroness. Into the heavily draped, shadowy opulence of the baronial apartment, Odette’s pale form bears the only light. But – despite a romantic pas de deux – she still cannot hold her husband, and fades into the woodwork. The brief final act reunites the lovers (in yet another grand pas), this time beside the lake. Siegfried at last casts off his mistress, but Odette cannot cast off her madness. She plunges into the tarn, leaving Siegfried alone with his grief.

The story, like the choreography (and Nicolette Fraillon’s edition of the score), steps boldly far from the original. With the lake a metaphor for madness, and both Odile and Rothbart morphing into the prince’s mistress, we almost wonder whether Odette has fallen into the water and emerged as Giselle.

Yet this Swan Lake keeps one foot firmly en pointe, standing in the very tradition it subverts. The raked circular platform of the lake, with swans kneeling around it, comes as a shock – it so faithfully echoes the Bolshoi’s staging. And half of the ballet (Acts II and IV) inhabits this neoclassic cloister, as if Odette’s illness is a stylistic regression. The principals are clearly at home in this half-modern half-traditional Swan Lake, handling both with ease and grace.

Madeleine Eastoe and the Australian Ballet company © Lisa Tomasetti
Madeleine Eastoe and the Australian Ballet company
© Lisa Tomasetti

As Siegfried, Kevin Jackson has much dancing to do. His long-limbed athleticism serves both ballerinas well, and he gives the rather feckless prince a certain charm, if not likeability.  Lana Jones, handed an even less complex character in the Baroness, oscillates dutifully between hauteur, seductive power, confusion and dejection, with crisp technique throughout. But it is, of course, Odette’s ballet. Madeleine Eastoe creates a naif, almost a nymphet, futilely fighting for her mate against the mature Baroness; she flops between them, flaps arms at her rival, and falls upon him, to no avail. As her desperation intensifies, her fouettés become airier and her chaines whip ever more wildly. By the end of Act I, she may have lost Siegfried – and her sanity – but she owns the audience.

Really, Act I could stand by itself – and in the evolution of ballet’s canon it may well make for a brilliant concert piece.

It’s more than 40 years since The Australian Ballet, then a fledgling, visited Los Angeles. In the interim, the company has matured into a world-class company. From principals through to the corps, these dancers are both masters of the classical, and comfortable adding the complex rhythmics and less graceful idioms of modern movement. The founding generation – Murphy, Fredrikson and Janet Vernon – have done their work splendidly. Next visit (which one hopes will be before 2050!), Los Angeles will see what the second generation achieves.