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New life for Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Swan Lake

The Royal New Zealand Ballet restages Swan Lake, breathing new life into the ballet, and honouring the career of late choreographer Russell Kerr, writes Jack Yan
May 1, 2024/14.06

RNZB Swan Lake
RNZB Swan Lake
RNZB Swan Lake
RNZB Swan Lake
RNZB Swan Lake
RNZB Swan Lake
RNZB Swan Lake
RNZB Swan Lake
Stephen A’Court
How wonderful for the Royal New Zealand Ballet to restage their 1996 version of Swan Lake in its 2024 Ryman season in association with Avis, paying tribute to the late choreographer Russell Kerr, QSM, ONZM (1930–2022), who updated the original for the production after Petipa–Ivanov. Turid Revfeim, former RNZB ballet mistress and currently classical tutor at the New Zealand School of Dance, returned to the company to restage Kerr’s version of Swan Lake, honouring and recognizing his legacy as the country’s greatest choreographer.

The 2024 restaging premièred at the St James Theatre in Wellington on Wednesday night, with a deeply appreciative full house. The late Kristian Fredrikson’s breathtaking (literally, for some members of the audience) sets returned in great splendour, as did Jon Buswell’s lighting design, adding beautifully to the drama on stage. The Tchaikovsky score was performed with added gusto by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the irrepressible and energetic Hamish McKeich. The costumes have been refreshed by the company’s team, and they are as opulent and as heavy as they look. No two are alike—this is the level of tailoring that Fredrikson went to. The swan costumes are mother-of-pearl with blue and silver, not plain white, allowing them to shimmer.

When Lucire last reviewed this ballet in 2013, Gillian Murphy played the dual roles of Odette and Odile, with guest artist Karel Cruz as Prince Siegfried; tonight it was Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Vėjalis respectively. It feels like a new generation, especially as RNZB artistic director Ty King-Wall was himself a dancer in the 2013 production, alternating with Cruz. King-Wall said he wanted to become a dancer when he saw the 1996 production. Recently retired RNZB principal Paul Mathews, who himself would have made a splendid Siegfried, appeared as Wolfgang, the prince’s tutor; previously this was a role performed by the legendary Sir Jon Trimmer.

Mathews noted, ‘I shared many character roles with Sir Jon over my career and we would talk in depth about character development so I will incorporate those gems of wisdom. Reconnecting with the RNZB and honouring Russell Kerr and Jon Trimmer, who both did so much for ballet in New Zealand, was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.’ Mathews is married to Tanigaito.

Kerr expected his ballet to evolve, as it did so in 2002, 2007 and 2013, and the 2024 version remains contemporary (Shaun James Kelly as the jester gets a mention, bringing his character to life with verve).

Given that the ballet evolves slightly with each interpretation, as was Kerr’s intent, it would be unfair to compare performances. Tanigaito is exceptional and deserving of the lead role, with the multiple pirouettes in Act III a memorable sight. Vėjalis’s performances have matured for him to take on Siegfried, and his solos show his increasing depth and technique. You could see him get more and more comfortable into the role on opening night, and over the years, Vėjalis has only got stronger. Their pas de deux were performed with the right emotion.

We’re interested in the pas de trois of Catarina Estévez Collins, Kihiro Kusukami (one to watch), and Katherine Minor, as these three dancers are delightful. Minor has, of course, performed lead roles, unsurprisingly, and no doubt we will see more of them in future productions. The smaller roles are flawless, too, such is the level of detail.

Ballet fans will know the story well but the restaging breathes fresh life into the Kerr ballet. His version of Swan Lake continues to feel lavish—the official photographs only capture a fraction—with its costumes, production design, and score. This shows the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s expertise once again, and proved an enjoyable night out.

Swan Lake remains in Wellington till May 5, before moving to Auckland for May 9–12, then Napier for May 17–18, Christchurch for May 23–6, Dunedin for May 30, and Invercargill for June 2. Auckland and Christchurch have their own orchestras providing the score.

Full details can be found at the RNZB’s website.

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