In this series of five interviews, Jane Albert looks at the dancers who have made legendary reputations in the lead roles of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Today we speak to Lynette Wills, former principal artist and now an extraordinary photographer whose work appears regularly on this blog.
It’s fair to say Swan Lake was pivotal in your career?
It was an interesting point in my career, when I was considering my future and whether to continue dancing. When the casting first went up I wasn’t even an understudy Baroness. Of course I desperately wanted to be, so being the person I am, I questioned it straight away, and David said, “You’ve been lovely, but it was Graeme and Janet’s casting.” But I lucked in because one day, for some reason every other baroness was sick or in a photo shoot, so they didn’t have anyone for this rehearsal. I remember Graeme being so flippant, and saying, “Do you want to do it Lindy – you don’t have to?”
It was a make-or-break moment. This was my chance. So I got up, I was dancing with Steven [Heathcote], and he said, “Oh you do know it!” I knew every step. The next day everyone was back, so I was back to number-nine understudy. Then a few people got injured, so I went on for the dress rehearsal; then Margaret Illmann got injured, so I went on as the first cast in Melbourne, then to Sydney as first-cast opening night and was promoted that night to principal artist!
It was a turning point in my career. That role went on to have a real emotional attachment; it was a defining role for me. It grew and developed and changed and evolved every time I danced it. I never got sick of doing that role.
Lynette Wills, Steven Heathcote and Madeleine Eastoe. Photography Jeff Busby
The Baroness is a complicated lady, how did you find her character?
I always think of her as just as much the victim as Odette. She’s not a blanket evil character, that’s too one-dimensional. I liked to play her as though I was owed, I was more interesting than Odette, we had a stronger love and this was destiny.
Describe the baroness’s movement? Difficult! In the big Act III solo there is some really non-balletic movement so you have to find and embrace the emotional reason behind why Graeme has given you steps that are seemingly ugly, what the meaning is. Then it works. If you’re self-conscious about the steps it really wouldn’t work. The messages in that solo are a little bit schizophrenic – she’s on the verge of losing her mind, but trying to get it back and hold on to that poise and prove she’s fabulous, while crumbling on the inside. It’s a very emotional solo, and really rewarding on the nights it works.
Steven Heathcote, Lynette Wills and Madeleine Eastoe. Photography Jeff Busby
As a dancer, why you do think Swan Lake has been so successful?
Because it’s risky. It’s Swan Lake! It’s pretty perfect already, otherwise it wouldn’t have stood the test of time. So to pick that ballet and change it so significantly was always going to be a risk. Graeme loves a challenge, he wouldn’t have seen it as a risk, he would have seen it as a golden opportunity and that’s what it turned out to be. An absolute gift for The Australian Ballet.
It’s so emotionally charged, physically exciting and visually beautiful. He got it so right. When you break it down it’s a bit strange sometimes, a bit quirky. Some steps aren’t traditionally ballet, he’s challenging the look, so you struggle and look almost grotesque. But when you throw it into the whole picture it’s crucial to the stylised choreography. And it’s racing with passion. It’s hugely challenging both physically and emotionally, and once it starts it’s on a perfect curve, so that by the time you get to the end you can’t take any more. And that’s when the audience erupts: they’re so emotionally spent and transfixed.
Swan Lake finishes on 28 February, and ticket availability is extremely limited! Hurry in!