Becoming the Baroness

09 February 2015 | By Rose

Soloist Laura Tong made her debut as the Baroness von Rothbart in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake on our recent US tour. She talks to us about dancing this beguiling villain.

When did you first dance Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, and what has been your relationship with the ballet since then?
I first danced the Murphy Swan Lake in 2004, shortly after joining The Australian Ballet. It was my first full-length work with the company and since then has provided some of my most memorable and enjoyable performances. I have danced most of the female roles in the ballet: Nun, Swan, Hungarian, Guardian Swan, Lead Hungarian, Guest, Princess Royal, and most recently Baroness. The swan acts are particularly lovely to dance as a Swan or Guardian Swan, as the sense of unity and emotional engagement with the story make it almost impossible not to feel Odette’s pain and joy as we dance alongside her.

Laura Tong rehearsing the role of the Baroness. Photography Lynette Wills

What was it like dancing your first Baroness on the company’s recent US tour?
The tour to Los Angeles and Berkeley was extremely special for me, because after ten years of being inspired by so many wonderful Baronesses, I was to make my debut. I still remember seeing the heartbreaking Act III solo in rehearsal during my first season, and knowing instantly that I would love to dance it. In the US I was partnered by the charming and debonair Andrew Killian as Prince Siegfried, who made the story come alive for me from the very first rehearsal.

How do you interpret the character? Is she a ruthless schemer? A gold digger? Or just hopelessly in love?
I don’t see the Baroness as a true villain or as evil and heartless. She is a woman in love who is determined, confident and relentless in her pursuit of the Prince, and completely assured, at least to begin with, that she is deserving of his love and her own happiness. As the drama unfolds the confidence turns to disbelief, anger, vulnerability, devastation, and finally desperation in her last scene of the ballet. It is the emotional contrast throughout the ballet that makes it such a challenging and satisfying role to tackle.

Laura Tong rehearsing the role of the Baroness. Photography Lynette Wills

What kind of help with developing the character did you get from Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon?
Most rehearsal processes start with the framework of steps and technique and the characters develop as we progress. In this case we began with the emotional intent, characterisation and motivations, and I spent many hours with Fiona [Tonkin, Ballet Mistress & Principal Coach) working through the ballet to find an interpretation that was cohesive and felt genuine. I loved this process and learnt a lot about getting the thoughts and emotions in my head and heart to “read” clearly to those watching. Graeme and Janet arrived a week before the tour and as always, they had a wonderful way of bringing the characters to life by focusing on the essence of the story and pushing us to our technical and artistic limits.

Laura Tong rehearsing the role of the Baroness. Photography Lynette Wills

Do you have an inspiration that has helped you get inside the character, something you think about when you’re dancing her?
Getting inside the character probably began unknowingly eleven years ago as I watched so many wonderful Baronesses perform the role, and appreciated how their interpretations could be so different and yet all so brilliant and moving. As I began the process myself I also had many conversations with Baronesses past and present, particularly [former Principal Artists] Lucinda Dunn and Lynette Wills and [Principal Artist] Lana Jones, about the role and their experiences. A recurring comment from the dancers I spoke to was how much the ballet continues to grow and change over seasons and years, so I can’t wait to tackle it again this season and to build on the wonderful experiences I had in the USA.

The Baroness is quite the glamourpuss – what’s your favourite of her costumes and why?
I love all of the Baroness’ costumes, but especially the glamorous sparkling Act III gown with gorgeous lace, scooped back and extravagant jewels.

In Behind the scenes of Swan Lake (11:30 – 12:30pm on 26 February), you’ll get to watch Steven Heathcote coach our principal artists onstage at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. You’ll also see the company take their morning class!