The Australian Ballet

A Villain's Glamour

Most versions of Swan Lake pit the purity of the white swans against the evil of the black-cloaked magician von Rothbart and his daughter, Odile, the Black Swan. In Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake, however, von Rothbart is a dangerously seductive dandy with an exotic retinue in tow.

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As von Rothbart enters the court, the whole room transforms; its chilly marbles and monolithic eagles peel back to reveal a come-hither, Wonderland-ish hall glowing with candles and thronged with sensual statues. Suddenly, we're somewhere else: the magician's dangerously alluring realm. Baynes' designer, Hugh Colman, says, “von Rothbart seduces everybody. He casts an erotic spell on the whole court.”

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Rather than a bat-like villain, von Rothbart is a suave sorcerer with a touch of Barnum and Bailey-ish razzle-dazzle. The magician sports a red beard: “I wanted to be really literal – Rothbart means Redbeard," says Colman. "Also, I wanted the sense of him as a stranger in the court, the fox in the henhouse.”

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Von Rothbart and Odile show up at the ball with an exotic entourage. The costumes for the magician’s troupe of entertainers are lavish swirls of magentas, violets, crimsons and golds, heavy with braid and fringe. The traditional Spanish variation is performed by mettlesome gypsies.

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The Russian variation is performed by an enigmatic beauty who emerges from a full-length golden veil; her four attendants are costumed in the Cossack style. Colman says, “I wanted the Spanish to creep towards Morocco, and the Russian to creep towards the Asian border, so that there’s something very wild and foreign about them, a quality that the court would find titillating.”

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The Russian beguilements are directed straight toward the Queen, Prince Siegfried's mother, a Russian princess brought to the stern court as a young bride. With her husband gone, isolated and despised, she has sunk into depression. When she hears von Rothbart play a tune from her youth on the violin, and touches the veil, so reminiscent of her national dress, she is overcome. The magician seduces her as thoroughly as Odile does Siegfried.

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When von Rothbart and Odile cruelly reveal their deception - they have tricked the Prince into betraying his true love - it's questionable who is more devastated, Siegfried or his mother. Having laid waste to the court, this malevolent charmer and his raffish pack run off into the night. Siegfried flees to the side of Odette, and the Queen collapses in a storm of grief.