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Swan Lake glides in

Swan Lake glides in

The Royal New Zealand Ballet are on a special 60th anniversary tour of the country performing Swan Lake. The first Auckland performances are this weekend at the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna where it runs Saturday and Saturday before moving over the bridge to The Civic, August 21-25.

Excerpts from a new history The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse give a glimpse of previous notable performances of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

The ballet are celebrating with a classic. This year, they perform Swan Lake for the 12th time — making Tchaikovksy’s great work their most popular choice since 1953. Director Ethan Stiefel says he wanted to present a show that encapsulated the ballet’s history and was an important work to stage regularly.

“I could think of no better way to capture this idea than to have Swan Lake performed. A production created by two celebrated New Zealand icons that have made such important contributions to the RNZB over the years: Russell Kerr and Kristian Fredrikson.”

Choreographer Kerr and designer Fredrikson both feature in The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, a history published to coincide with the anniversary. In the book, Kerr recounts opening night of the 1996 Auckland season of his Swan Lake:

“I called a taxi to take me to the theatre. In the course of conversation the driver asked if I knew much about ballet. With a sense of false modesty my response was to claim I did have some knowledge about what I was going to see. I was advised I should at least find out the story before going to a performance because ballet dancers did not speak. The driver then gave me his version of the story of Swan Lake:

‘There’s this good looking sheila who’s been turned into a swan by a nasty old geezer. A young guy falls for her but the old geezer fools him. At his birthday bash, the young guy thinks he’s telling the swan he’s fallen for her but he doesn’t know the old geezer’s made another girl look just like her. In the end the real swan drowns herself in the drink and the young guy jumps in after her. Silly bugger!’

“The taxi driver’s simple précis of the synopsis was not intended to be derisive.

“His daughter was learning ballet, he had read the story in one of her books and was interpreting this in his own particular vernacular. He was taking his daughter to a performance the following week, and for me, the association of the driver and his daughter with a production that was already proving very successful made me feel that even at street level we were achieving something close to our creative objective — ‘to make a pointe’.”

When the swans, princesses and geezers hit the stage, they will be wearing extravagant costumes designed by Fredrikson, who died in 2005 after a glittering 42-year career. Works of art in their own right, Fredrikson’s designs and drawings are now held in collection at Dowse Art Museum in Petone, Fredrikson’s birthplace. One Hollywood-tinged design left a lasting impression on prima ballerina Kerry-Anne Gilberd:

“One of my most memorable productions was Swan Lake in 1985, Harry Haythorne’s production, with design by Kristian Fredrikson. What a brilliant man Kristian was. My Odile costume is the most spectacular garment that I have ever had the opportunity to wear — a perfectly fitted black tutu, made from a divine piece of lace that Kristian had hand-selected in New York [pictured above]. It was from the remainder of a bolt of lace that had been made into a garment for Greta Garbo back in the 20s. There was only enough material to make one tutu and that happened to be mine! I remember how the audiences used to gasp when I made my entrance due to the brilliant sparkle and effect of such a magnificently crafted and bejewelled piece of art.”

The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60: Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse (VUP, $60).

Swan Lake: Royal New Zealand Ballet with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Bruce Mason Centre, August 17-18; and The Civic, August 21-25.

First published Metro, July-August 2013.

Theatre