Joined by Berkeley Symphony and conductor Nicolette Fraillon, The Australian Ballet makes its Bay Area premiere at Cal Performances with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ (choreography: Graeme Murphy), Oct. 16–19, 2014 in Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Jeff Busby
Joined by Berkeley Symphony and conductor Nicolette Fraillon, The Australian Ballet makes its Bay Area premiere at Cal Performances with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ (choreography: Graeme Murphy), Oct. 16–19, 2014 in Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Jeff Busby

If ballet is a matrix, Swan Lake is the matriarch of all matrixes.

Structured to follow rules of expression, manipulated according to form and line, the classic equation of good-versus-evil equals tragic ecstasy premiered as a four act ballet in 1877. Since then, choreographers have torqued the score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the ballet’s synopsis in countless ways, although classical ballet audiences are generally most familiar with an 1895 version staged for the Imperial Russian Ballet by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

Twenty-first century film buffs may have migrated to 2010’s Black Swan, a movie starring Natalie Portman. Regardless of the medium, Swan Lake is largely a physical battle involving honor, love, betrayal and mortality.

Enter choreographer Graeme Murphy and the Australian Ballet, making their first Bay Area appearance since 1971 with five performances of Swan Lake at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall on Oct. 16-19. Murphy’s rendition, created for the Australian Ballet’s 40th anniversary in 2002, will feature the Berkeley Symphony with guest conductor Nicolette Fraillon, Music Director & Chief Conductor of The Australian Ballet.

‘Swan Lake’ runs Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 16–19, 2014 at Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Jeff Busby
‘Swan Lake’ runs Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 16–19, 2014 at Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Jeff Busby

Murphy has taken the original story’s quartet of central characters and triangulated the tale into the 1990s saga of Princess Diana, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. The traditional staging has Prince Siegfried falling in love with a swan, Odette, who is ultimately outmatched by her merciless counterpart, Odile, while under the spell of the evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart. Various suicide, death and resurrection scenarios end the ballet.

Thrust into a three-point contemporary love triangle, Murphy creates a composite, the Baroness von Rothbart, and pits the action according to psychological impulse.The Prince’s true passion, expectedly, is not the elusive Odette/Odile/Diana, but the baroness. Pivoting on Odette’s tortured imaginings, love’s betrayal, it seems, means no one captures anyone’s heart and all souls are broken.

While audiences have been amazed for over a century by the ballet’s ethereal ballerinas, princely jetés and 32 whipping turns (performed by Odile on one leg and known as fouettés) — the Australian company holds no less promise — perhaps the most astounding occurrence has been the furor raised by Murphy’s version.

In 2012, New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay praised Murphy’s linking the ballet’s legend to the contemporary English love triangle as clever while criticizing it as “an exercise in opportunism.” The reordering of the music, Macaulay wrote, “cashes in on Tchaikovsky’s score without ever opening its heart to the production.”

Harsh words, especially considering historical records show that Tchaikovsky’s score has been undergoing alterations from day one. Most productions trim the music because playing the complete score would result in a three hour performance. Importantly, composers and librettist in the 19th century were totally subservient to choreographers and made frequent changes to suit a dancer or particular staging, Fraillon says in an email interview.

“(Choreographers) decided what numbers would be written, how long (numbers would be), the tempos, time signatures and whether or not they thought the music appropriate. They had total artistic control,” she said.

Additionally, each time a work was restaged or performed by a new cast, new alterations were necessary. Murphy’s version actually restores some of the original order—an adagio in Act III returns to it’s original Act I position—and excises sections, some of which weren’t in the original and were not actually written by Tchaikovsky.

Fraillon said streamlining required the creation of harmonic bridges for only two transitions and in transposing the work, she was struck anew by the music’s powerful, dramatic structure.

“Any cuts strip the score of superfluous entertainment numbers and all dance becomes central to the drama,” she said. “What remains is the most symphonic of and powerful of the music, highlighting the strength of Tchaikovsky’s compositional concepts.”

Berkeley Symphony concertmaster Franklyn D’Antonio has had study materials in hand for several weeks and said in an interview the transitions are done well and the ballet’s movements have an entity of their own. With only three rehearsals with Fraillon two days prior to the first performance, a dvd of a recent performance by the Australian Ballet in Japan has been vital.

“The tempi, especially in the solos, has to suit the dancer while still being free-flowing,” he said. “I have to be totally comfortable and artistic: I can’t be locked or fixated on what it has to be.”

Fraillon said a ballet conductor must also be fluid: serving as a conduit and establishing a symbiotic melding between the musicians in the orchestra pit and the dancers onstage. Like a weaver, knitting the language of ballet with the music requires that she intuit a dancer’s balance while marrying it to a violinist’s rubato—a lesson in subservience.

Operating like the composers of Tchaikovsky’s time, she said a good ballet conductor is “one with knowledge, opinions, capacity to make strong artistic statements whilst giving voice to those of others. It is a complex, exhausting and energizing role—one which still fascinates, frustrates and excites me, every single performance.”

D’Antonio, his task requiring flexibility equal to Fraillon’s and in-the-moment vulnerability much like that of the dancers onstage, said playing for ballet is a favorite assignment.

“I can’t see the dancers during the show, so I watch them in rehearsal,” he said. “I imagine what the dancers are doing—but if the conductor does something unexpected, I respond because I must have life and artistry at any speed.”

For information and tickets, visit Cal Performances online.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events: it’s self-serve and free.