Coaching Swan Lake

10 February 2015 | By Rose

Ballet Master Steven Heathcote was one of The Australian Ballet’s most beloved and longest-serving principal artists, and created the role of Prince Siegfried in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Now he is coaching a new generation of princes.

How do you see your role as a coach?
One of the fascinating things about coaching is that every dancer is different – and thank God they are! Every dancer brings their own strengths to the role, and one my jobs as a coach is to recognise those and – without changing the choreography – to tap into them, so they’re not just reproducing what someone else did. The last thing I want to say to the dancers is “Do it like I did it!” At the same time, you have to stay true to the choreographer’s intention, just as actors always try to stay true to the writer’s intention.

As a coach you do a lot of watching. What I’m looking for is a visible understanding in the dancer’s body of what they’re doing. And if there are glitches or difficult spots, then we can go in and, usually fairly quickly, analyse that and make suggestions about how they can feel more comfortable with the choreography.

I hope what I can do is to help dancers let go of fear and inhibition. You have to encourage dancers to be emotionally brave. It’s hard, because they are, as actors are, required to open and bare their souls – and that’s pretty scary for some people. So in the initial process, in the studio, I hope what I can do is to create an environment where they feel safe to do that, and that then they feel empowered to take that feeling of opening up onto the stage. Because that’s what it takes to touch an audience.

Steven Heathcote – “… you do a lot of watching.” Photography Lynette Wills

The role of Siegfried was made on you – what kind of things did Graeme Murphy tell you about the character as he was creating the ballet?
As a point of departure only – before a step was danced – we looked at the triangle between Prince Charles, Camilla and Diana. But it wasn’t only that: it was all of the royal shenanigans that have gone on for centuries. It was almost de rigeur for an incumbent king to have a mistress! So we looked at the world of privilege, the expectation that you would produce the correct heir to the throne, and the pressures that places on individuals. Perhaps one of the release valves for these pressures was to have an affair.

Swan Lake has this innocent girl, Odette; it has Prince Siegfried – and while you shouldn’t feel too sorry for him (he wants to have his cake and eat it too), he is under this terrible pressure to marry and produce an heir; it also has the Baroness, who is an extremely clever social climber. I do think she is genuinely in lust, if not in love, with the Prince – but she certainly sees him as an avenue to the social standing she craves, which is nothing less than the throne. It’s clear as a bell at the end of Act I, where she actually goes over and sits on the throne, and you can see every cell of her body thinking “Yes, this is where I should be.”

Steven Heathcote. Photography Lynette Wills

One of the reasons why this Swan Lake resonates with so many people, even people who haven’t seen much ballet, is that it touches on human relationships and situations that are familiar to just about anybody. If you haven’t experienced those feelings yourself, you’ve probably experienced them vicariously through the media. You could transpose the lead characters in Murphy’s Swan Lake into any modern setting – it could be set in an insurance company! – and the characters would go through the same sorts of things, because at the core of it, it’s about innocence, it’s about deceit, it’s about the yearning for something that’s real, rather than constructed and expected. The reason this ballet has been so successful is because it really gets you where it hurts. And I think audiences want that, they want to feel something.

What are the particular challenges of Murphy’s choreography?
It’s really hard on the body because it’s classical – but it’s not. It has dips and curves and convoluted shapes that straight-up classical ballet doesn’t have. I know a lot of the guys talk about “Murphy back” – the partnering is beautiful to do, but it puts you in very unusual positions, and just stamina-wise it’s very tough. At the end of the ballet when you do the pas de deux with the Baroness, then you push her away and turn around and … there comes Odette! … that’s pretty puffy. I remember being pretty wasted after that. But it’s also a really satisfying feeling because the ballet is such a complete journey, and knowing that you’ve taken the audience on that journey with you is a really good feeling. So for me now as a coach the joy is facilitating that journey for other dancers. It’s a rare privilege to have been able to walk the walk and then help others to do the same.

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!