When Graeme Murphy created his Swan Lake in 2002, no one could have guessed that it would become one of The Australian Ballet's greatest successes, its international calling card and its signature work. Simone Goldsmith, Murphy's original Odette, takes us back to the ballet's birth.
07 Mar 2018
How did the process of creating Swan Lake begin?
The first time I heard about Swan Lake was when David [McAllister, the artistic director of The Australian Ballet], told me that Graeme wanted me to be his Odette. I remember being so honoured, but to be honest, quite surprised that he knew who I was – I didn’t think I was on his radar! Everyone has their different strengths and styles, and I was known as such a classical dancer. I really enjoyed dancing story ballets, and had an affinity for dramatic characters, so I am sure he saw something in me from those types of performances.
We met with Graeme and Janet [Vernon, Graeme’s creative associate], and he told us the story of his Swan Lake. He’s such a descriptive storyteller and gave us such strong images to work with. He mentioned the parallels to Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ story, but Swan Lake is not their story – it was a reference point from which to work from. Sadly, the story of adultery and doubts within marriage is as old as time. I think Graeme liked the idea of Odette having that quality of humility and sensitivity that Diana had – but that was more a starting point for us to relate to the emotions of the story.
The story reads very clearly in the ballet. Odette was hopeful, but she was blinded by her love, not honest with herself; she knew, even the night before her wedding, that something was not right, but didn't want to believe what was happening. Not being supported by anyone is what ultimately drove her to insanity – no one would listen, no one cared.
What was it like being in the studio with Graeme?
At the end of 2001, we started creating the ballet in Sydney. It was just Steven [Heathcote, who danced Prince Siegfried] and myself in the studio with Graeme and Janet. We were with them all day, every day at the beautiful studios of the Sydney Dance company. The creative process was so intense; it was exhausting, but exhilarating. I felt like I’d never worked so hard and been so invested in something – it was already so rewarding, I just wanted more. We developed an amazing rapport. I loved working with Graeme, he comes in with his style and with a clear idea of what he wants to say, but he always makes his pieces on and with the dancers in front of him. It was a very rewarding collaboration, and such a special time in my career. I’d been in many creations with The Australian Ballet, and had enjoyed them all, but most of them had been one-act ballets, so it’s hard to compare them to what is required of you when creating a full-length, three-hour piece.
Technically, what was the hardest part of dancing Odette?
It took a while for me to build the stamina, that was the hardest part, just to keep going through the whole thing! I always found that technical challenges disappear when you have a character and a great story to tell (well maybe not disappear, but having a story to focus on certainly helps). Toward the end of Act I, Odette snaps and descends into a spiral of despair. She throws herself at all the men, and it's really like nothing I had ever done before – I remember the first time I did that I was on the floor, a sweating mess, at the end of it! I had to learn to pace myself to be able to finish the rest of the ballet.
There are many ways to dance Odette, from fragile to furious. How did you interpret the character?
I felt Odette was such a fragile character, hyper sensitive and in need of support. Her instability and what ultimately leads to her break down is the fact that her heart is open and it's compromised by the one person she had hoped would hold it together. She has no one to trust and no one who believes in her. She is delicate and sensitive to the point of paranoia; it ruins her.
What was it like dancing in Kristian Fredrikson’s celebrated costumes?
I loved that swan costume! Often tutus, however beautiful they look, can be a bit restrictive. It was really great to know that you would be doing the choreography that you had worked on and you would get into costume and it would feel exactly the same. Often, you get to the point in rehearsal where you’re feeling ready, you’ve got your upper body working, you know how much force to put in to your turns, etc., and then you get in the costume and it’s like, “Oh!” – your turns are harder, you feel a bit stiffer, and suddenly you feel like you have to start again. I really loved that Kristian’s costumes for the swans assisted in the lines that we were creating: there was nothing in the way that would interfere with the choreography.
The wedding dress certainly made you feel like a princess, it was beautiful, but it was so long; we had to practice quite a lot to be able to swish it out of the way elegantly.
Tell us about that underwater shoot for the Swan Lake poster – was that difficult?
It was fun! I mean, I nearly died from the cold … We did it at Clovelly in Sydney (so not at a heated swimming pool somewhere) and it was absolutely freezing! Graeme joined me in the water, so I wasn't alone.
I think this was before digital images, it was so long ago; I recall going in a bit blind, as nothing could be checked at the time to see if you were on the right track. I just had to dive down and make the shapes in the water and hope for the best!
What was the world premiere of the ballet like?
On the opening night, I was surprisingly relaxed, we’d done many dress rehearsals and previews, so I certainly felt as though I was ready and the production was ready to be seen by the public. There was a buzz around the theatre before the show with the expectation of an exciting night to come!
But strangely, I really had no idea what it looked like, having never seen it from the front; I didn’t see it from the audience until the following year. The audience response was incredible, a standing ovation – something I had never experienced before. Melbourne audiences are somewhat reserved, so it was a really lovely surprise. I was promoted to principal at the reception after the show, so it most definitely remains a night to remember!