I have no qualifications for writing about Swan Lake performed by The Royal New Zealand Ballet with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, other than that I saw it and was wearing this t-shirt:
Like many others, perhaps including a majority of men about Natalie Portman’s age, I became interested in ballet — particularly Swan Lake — after seeing Black Swan. As much as I love that epically unhinged film, Tchaikovsky’s music is what has sustained my interest in the years since. I must’ve listened to the whole score a hundred times; in particular, it provided a surreal soundtrack to my daily train commute in South India, clarinet and strings waving in sync with the branches of coconut palms.
From our seats, we were lucky enough to be able to see into the orchestra pit.
And when the lights dimmed, and that familiar musical phrase opened the performance, I already had my money’s worth.
Up went the curtain, and the best dancers in the country moved their perfectly toned, muscular bodies with transcendent grace. Between the music and the movement, I wasn’t really sure where to look. My tendency in describing art to others, especially visual art, is to focus on a particularly memorable aspect or moment and let that speak for my overall impression. This is very hard to do with a consummate performance featuring the life’s work of two dozen dancers, world-class choreographers, designers of three-storey sets and 20kg costumes, and an entire orchestra. How can I omit the flautist’s precise notes, the ornate headdress at stage left, the way liquid nitrogen ripples beneath Qi Huan’s feet? If I don’t mention that heartbreaking key change in the final scene, or Odile’s 32 fouettes, can I even say I’ve seen Swan Lake?
One dancer stood out. My companion later told me that she’d earned 100% on a Royal Academy of Dance exam when they were in the same teenage class in Tauranga. Her name is Katherine Grange and she danced in such a way that I could imagine her succeeding in any chosen passion; she just happened to choose dance. As much as anyone else on stage, her performance showed me something I hadn’t previously realised: ballet is a genuine feat of acting, and facial expression is a key element. The feet and arms need to be technically exceptional, but it’s the emotion in the way they move that carries the audience along.
Some of my favourite films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lost In Translation, make a point of telling the story (or long stretches of it, at least) with images and music rather than words. In ballet, I think I’ve found an art which is based entirely on this principle. “Would you like to go to the ballet again?” asked my friend as we debriefed over a beer. My eyes widened. “Absolutely.” If the human species had three hours to demonstrate our capabilities to visiting alien dignitaries, a full performance of Swan Lake would do the trick.