The Australian Ballet

Beneath the lake: a swan’s perspective

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Sydney Photo Kate Longley 2016 a31 2

Amy Harris, Dimity Azoury, Jade Wood and artists of The Australian Ballet, Swan Lake (Baynes), 2016
Photo Kate Longley

Look below the surface and you’ll see Swan Lake is so much more than it seems. We chat to several dancers about the time, training and technique it takes to tackle the world’s most famous ballet.

The swans bound onto stage in Act II of Swan Lake, and an enchanting atmosphere takes hold. Propelled by the pulsating Tchaikovsky score, they move seamlessly through fouetté arabesques and temps levés, forming impressive patterns. The cygnets dart across the stage, executing complex petit allegro while their arms are interlinked. The protective lead swans leap through space in a series of suspended grand jetés. Quivering violins soundtrack immaculate unison and the audience is captivated.

Beneath the effortlessly glossy surface of Swan Lake’s ‘lake scenes’ are hours dedicated to refining details. In rehearsals, the dancers’ focus on aligning themselves with each other, cultivating the art of spatial awareness. Whether dancing or still, they make constant adjustments to their head, neck and arms to create vital symmetry. Their eyes constantly scan for marks on the floor to set formations consistently, and spaces between each swan are measured and memorised. A complex, unique map forms in the mind of each dancer.

The shared energy between the swans is palpable as they tune in to each other's rhythms. Following a demanding stand, where muscle cramps are inevitable, the swans collectively inhale—not only to restore synchronisation, but also to propel each other onwards.

As the swans complete their final steps in Act IV, a powerful sense of comradery emerges. The dramatic score bellows through the theatre in this emotional scene, and a surge of elation fills the stage.

Having firsthand experience of the challenges and exhilaration within the lake are Jasmin Durham, Jade Wood, and Valerie Tereshchenko, who, together, have performed Swan Lake more than 500 times throughout their careers. As they prepare for the upcoming season, they discuss the nuances and challenges of their unique roles.

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Sydney Photo Kate Longley 2016 s60 1

Jasmin Durham, Ella Havelka and Sophie Morgan, Swan Lake (Baynes), 2016
Photo Kate Longley

Jasmin Durham – Swan Performances: 150+

The formations make Act II and Act IV so visually pleasing. What strategies do you have for staying in line?

Peripheral vision is key. I must stay present, because even though I’ve been told to stand on a certain mark on the stage, I need to always be ready to adjust and follow the dancer in front of me. As a tall dancer, I’m rarely at the front of the line, so I have a lot of experience keeping in line with dancers around me. For a long-standing line, I must prioritise exactly where I place my foot. I only have a split second to decide, and it’s so important because once I’ve stood, I can’t move if I’m not in line.

How do you deal with cramps during the long stands?

Leading up to a Swan Lake season I always make sure I'm sufficient in calcium, potassium, and magnesium. I also do the stands properly in rehearsal, so that I build up my endurance. When I cramp on stage, I breathe deeply and focus on the music to take my mind off the pain. If it’s my feet cramping (most likely), wriggling my toes helps, but to be honest, mental strength is what pushes me through. After the show, I massage my muscles straight away.

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Sydney Photo Kate Longley 2016 s129 1

Jasmin Durham, Swan Lake (Baynes), 2012
Photo Kate Longley

What about when you go from standing still to jumping?

The longest stands are when all the diverts perform, during lead swans, cygnets, and Odette’s solo. During Odette’s solo I start wriggling and doming my toes (imagine picking up sand with your toes), activating my core, and focusing on my breathing. It always works!

What’s the most rewarding part?

The comradery within the Company both on stage and in the change room. Performing a season of Swan Lake changes your perspective on what you are capable of as dancer. Some of my favourite memories of my career are towards the end of Act IV. The music is out of this world, and you feel such a sense of achievement because a few hours before you had no idea if you could even get through the show.

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Melbourne Photo Jeff Busby 2012 sa30 1

Reiko Hombo, Jessica Fyfe, Eloise Fryer and Jade Wood, Swan Lake (Baynes), 2012
Photo Jeff Busby

Jade Wood – Cygnet – Performances: 200+

What’s your relationship with the other swans?

The cygnets are the little swans, so we’re usually the shorter dancers. This creates a contrast between us and the majestic Lead Swans, who are usually taller dancers. The magical thing about swans is the sense of everyone breathing together on the lake, whether it be in the quiet moments the pas de deux, or even when the swans are jumping around and puffing our lungs out. The sense that we are in it together gives us such pride and a sense of power. 

How does it feel to be interlinked to other dancers during cygnets?

Dancing interlinked to other dancers is a unique part of cygnets. The middle cygnets feel the most boxed in, but the cygnets on the end have the job of leading the angles when we’re travelling, so every spot has it challenges! Dancing without the use of our arms is also very challenging. You need a firm enough grip to hold onto each other but not too firm that you disrupt your fellow cygnets!

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Sydney Photo Daniel Boud 2016 aa60 1

Karen Nanasca, Jade Wood, Sarah Thompson, Dimity Azoury, Amy Harris, Jill Ogai and artists of The Australian Ballet, Swan Lake (Baynes), 2016
Photo Daniel Boud

What's the rehearsal focus for cygnets?

Getting all four cygnets to move and dance at the same time takes a lot of rehearsal. The dance needs to look in sync, so for the audience it’s like looking at just one person. It’s also technically challenging, so we build up the stamina needed for the fast petit allegro and pointe work. Teamwork, patience, and a sense of humour are important in rehearsals.

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Sydney Photo Daniel Boud 2016 ea13

Valerie Tereshchenko with artists of The Australian Ballet. Swan Lake (Baynes), 2016
Photo Daniel Boud

Valerie Tereshchenko – Lead swan Performances: 200+

What’s your relationship to the others in the lake?

I imagine the lead swans as the matriarchs and of the swan flock. They are the mature protectors and leaders of the group, the ones flying or swimming at the front of the flock.

What’s challenging about being a lead swan?

I love dancing lead swans because you get to imbue a sense of maturity into the swan scenes. To show this quality, we must cover a lot of space. There’s a lot of grand allegro and so much jumping and travelling that gets tiring very quickly and requires good stamina.

SWANLAKE Rehearsal 01 1168 1

Valerie Tereshchenko Swan Lake, (Woolliams) 2023
Photo Brodie James

You dance in the group and as a duo, what different skills do you need?

Dancing in a group is one of the hardest things about being in the corps de ballet, you can’t dance full out in way that feels natural to your body as you must become one with every other dancer on stage. You can’t get lost in the movement, which can feel restrained and requires a lot of concentration. Dancing in a duo allows you much more freedom to dance more fully and enjoy the space. However, you still must have an eye out for your partner because you need to make sure you are evenly spaced and in time with one another. Essentially the skills required are the same, you still need awareness of the lead swan, but dancing outside the swan flock allows more freedom to dance in a way that is unique to yourself.

What’s the rehearsal focus for lead swans?

The rehearsal focus is on the expansion of movement to portray the maturity and size of the lead swans. Timing and musicality are important as you must be in unison with the other lead swan. In the early stages of rehearsal, we work on building the stamina and rhythm needed to produce large, suspended-in-the-air jumps.

For more information and to book tickets

Swan Lake