Posted on 24 June 2020 By Rose Mulready

It's Swan Lake - but hotter, fiercer, madder, sadder. Graeme Murphy takes Tchaikovsky's score and the bones of the classical ballet (white swans, a prince, a slinky seductress) and shakes them into a Freudian kaleidescope with strong overtones of Princess Diana and her bitter revelation: "There were three us in this marriage". The ballet opens with the Princess Odette, on the eve of her wedding, fearfully roaming the halls in search of her Prince. All is not well ... 

You're about to join the thousands of people - from London to Paris, New York to Tokyo - who have thrilled to this modern-day classic. Read up on the ballet's colourful history before you dive into the Lake.

Swan Lake is brought to you for free by our Major Partner Silversea


Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake was the first ballet David McAllister commissioned when he became artistic director of The Australian Ballet; it premiered in 2002, the company's 40th anniversary year. Reworking and modernising a classic so entrenched in the collective unconscious is always a risk. McAllister quipped at the time that his directorship might be the shortest in the company's history. But the gamble paid off handsomely. Splendidly designed by Kristian Fredrikson, danced with passion and committment, and with the added spice of a royal love affair that closely mirrored the tangled Windsor knot of Charles and Diana's marriage, Swan Lake swept audiences to their feet all around the world. The company performed it almost yearly for over a decade. 

In Murphy's version, Odette is an innocent young princess who loves her handsome new husband. However, on their wedding day, she discovers that he's still deep in an affair with Baroness von Rothbart (a seductive blend of the traditional ballet's Baron von Rothbart and Odile, the Black Swan). The baroness has no intention of giving up the Prince, and Odette - friendless in her new courtly environment, heartbroken and fearful - is carted away to an asylum. The swans of the second act are her hallucination of a place where she is protected and enfolded, and where the Prince of her dreams loves only her. 

Don't miss: The very final moment of the ballet, where design, music, movement and emotion come together in a last staggering crescendo. 

Fun fact: On the night of Swan Lake's Sydney premiere, the city was battered by storms, and the curtain had to be held for 45 minutes while the orchestra struggled through gridlocked traffic. Steven Heathcote, who was dancing Prince Siegfried, had to abandon his car and sprint to the theatre. 

Deep dive: In 2005, The Australian Ballet toured to London with Swan Lake, directly after the city was struck by terrorist attacks. Follow them from plane to studio to theatre as they talk about their lives, the tour and Murphy's ballet. 

Madeleine Eastoe and Robert Curran. Photography Jim Macfarlane


Robert Curran is Siegfried, the man torn between duty and desire, his sweet new wife and his sexy mistress. In his ten years as a principal artist with The Australian Ballet, Curran was a role model for our male dancers and a much-coveted partner for our female dancers. His graceful, finished technique was only ever a vehicle for his intensely focused investment in his roles. 

Madeleine Eastoe was a great favourite with choreographers making new work on the company. Murphy chose her to create the role of Juliet in his production of Romeo & Juliet (you may have seen her dancing it in our At Home with Ballet TV season of the ballet). Just as there are many different ways to interpret Giselle, there are many different ways to interpret Murphy's Odette. Eastoe's was fragile and otherworldly, with a touch of Audrey Hepburn-ish dignity. The role was a breakthrough one for her.

Watch out for: The pas de deux. The four acts of the ballet are filled with duets for Siegfried and Odette, and they chart their changing relationship as Siegfried moves from fury to pity to love - first in Odette's fantasy and then in reality. 

Fun fact: Eastoe is married to Tim Harbour, one of the company's resident choreographers. On the 2008 tour to Paris, she danced opening night of Swan Lake while nine weeks pregnant with their child. 

Deep dive: Read Curran and Eastoe talking about their experiences with Swan Lake

Photography David Kelly / Liz Ham


The master: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. When he wrote Swan Lake in 1877, he could not have known it would change ballet music forever - and, in fact, he died not knowing it, as it was not until 1895 that Petipa's revival of the ballet, with Tchaikovsky's score arranged by Drigo, became a hit. After Tchaikovsky's three groundbreaking scores, ballet music was elevated to the realm of the symphonic, and the stage was set for Prokofiev and Stravinsky. 

Listen out for: The twining notes of the cello and violin in the famous Act II pas de deux for Siegfried and Odette. This started life as a love duet in an opera, Undine, that Tchaikovsky largely destroyed. The cello line was originally a tenor voice, the violin a soprano. As George Balanchine said of Swan Lake, "Take any pas de deux ... their melodies are absolutely vocal." 

Fun fact: The order of the score in Murphy's ballet was unfamiliar to most Swan Lake fans. Particularly controversial was his placement of the music normally used for the Act III Black Swan Pas de deux, which Murphy moved to the first act and used to accompany Odette's explosion of fury when she discovers Siegfried's affair. Critics blustered that this was "unmusical"; in fact, Murphy's collaborator and designer Kristian Fredrikson had done painstaking research which suggested that this was where Tchaikovsky had placed the music. 

Deep dive: Read our Music Director Nicolette Fraillon talking about Tchaikovsky's score and Murphy's use of it.

Reiko Hombo, Ikue Shiga, Leanne Stojmenov and Miwako Kubota. Photography Jim McFarlane


The renowned designer Kristian Fredikson designed Swan Lake - in all senses of the word. He worked closely with Murphy and Janet Vernon, Murphy's partner and creative associate, to devise the storyline, themes and characters of the ballet, as well as doing exhaustive research into the score. All this, and that design - the lavish wedding dress, the Edwardian court, the stark asylum, the frozen lake, the devastatingly simple swan tutus with their elegantly ragged hemlines. 

Watch out for: The revelation of the black underskirt to Odette's prim white dress as, to the 'Black Swan' music, she throws a tantrum at her own wedding and shortly after is institutionalised. The darkness in her mind is taking over. 

Fun fact: Fredrikson's first design for the swans had them in lace cloche caps, which looked not unlike 1920s bath caps. These evolved into the starkly effective wing motifs you'll see in the recording. 

Deep dive: Kristian Fredrikson has designed many extraordinary productions for The Australian Ballet. Here are some highlights

Artists of The Australian Ballet. Photography Jeff Busby