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Swan Lake - The Choreography

Swan Lake

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Sydney Photo Kate Longley 2016 a4 1

The vision

David McAllister wanted a "traditional" production of Swan Lake for the repertoire – a version that would adhere to the classic scenario. Stephen Baynes agreed, but suggested some changes to strengthen the narrative. It was imperative that the second act remain largely intact; however, Baynes' completely rechoreographed the remaining three acts. This was challenging because all of the acts needed to sit well together aesthetically. Baynes wanted the drama to be increased in acts one and three and he did this by discarding the jester and the tutor but developing key supporting characters.

In this version the Queen is a significant character, there is a nurse who has taken charge of raising the Prince and a powerful, manipulative Lord Chancellor. All of these character choices seek to place the Prince within the context of his court surroundings – a hierarchal, aristocratic, nationalistic and military environment. Within this court the Prince struggles to fit in.

In Act III von Rothbart and Odile arrive with a retinue, which gives a reason for the national dances. In the Russian dance he bewitches the melancholy Queen by reminding her of her homeland and by the end of Act III he and Odile have seduced both Siegfried and his mother.

Most importantly, Baynes wanted to emphasise the profound romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s score, not only within the choreography but also by setting it in the late 19th century as opposed to the medieval period in which it is frequently set.

Read about Baynes' creative inspirations

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Sydney Photo Kate Longley 2016 a34 1

Choreography structures

The most iconic and arguably the most perfect part of Swan Lake is in the second act. Baynes has drawn from the recent Mariinsky productions and an older version by The Royal Ballet. However, he makes changes to Odette’s first encounter with the Prince, von Rothbart’s entrance, and the Lead Swans' dance. Act IV is all Baynes' own choreography, which had to appear stylistically consistent with the second act. As Tchaikovsky only wrote about 15 minutes of music for the last act, Baynes added some music from the third act for the pas de deux between Odette and Siegfried and the Lead Swans' dance.

Stylistically, the corps de ballet’s movement reflect birds in flight, particularly in the final dramatic storm. Baynes departs from the tradition of divertissement, in many ballets dancing for the sake of it, and seeks to tell a story that is driven by the narrative and the characters. This can be seen in the first act where Benno, the Countess and the Duchess, and their attempts to cheer up the Prince, motivate many of the numbers which are usually divertissements.

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Melbourne Photo Jeff Busby 2012 ea22 1

Choreographer's note

Creating a new version of this most iconic of classical ballets was a huge and exciting challenge. David McAllister wanted a traditional production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s magnificent reinvention of this ballet from a decade ago. There was therefore no question that the choreography for Act II should be the traditional version, but apart from this act and the Black Swan Pas de deux, all the choreography for the other three acts is my own. In Act II I have adhered mostly to the Kirov version, although I have made several alterations, including the choreography for the Lead Swans, which is essentially my own. I have also virtually rechoreographed Odette’s first encounter with Prince Siegfried. For Acts I and III, I wanted very much to do away with any sense of “divertissement”, so I strived to make the various numbers character-driven so they have a sense of purpose within the narrative.

Hugh Colman and I collaborated on every aspect of this production over many months, and more than anything else we have been guided by Tchaikovsky’s immortal score. Like so much of his music, it is steeped in a deeply Romantic aesthetic and it is this fundamental aspect that has driven our vision of the ballet. We both feel that the tragedy at the heart of this tale is as much about Siegfried as Odette, so in order to understand him more, I have tried to give the characters closest to him greater depth. Both he and Odette are essentially people trapped in situations against their will. Siegfried’s pre-ordained destiny of royal and military duty is totally at odds with his sensitive soul, and at an important turning point in his life, he seeks peace and solace by the beautiful lake near the palace – a place which has had great significance for him.

When Odette is revealed to him, he finds in her the embodiment of the truth and beauty he has yearned for and he falls instantly in love with her. But he has to confront the evil which enslaves her, and von Rothbart has the power to awaken a darker side in him. Faced with this, Siegfried succumbs to his human fallibility and Odette is lost to him.

I would like to thank Hugh for the shared experience of bringing this work to the stage and to congratulate him on his exquisite designs. I would also like to thank Rachel Burke and Domenico Bartolo, who have collaborated with us over many months, and whose contributions are an integral part of the production.

Finally, I want to thank the beautiful dancers of The Australian Ballet. I hope the ballet is as rewarding for them to dance as they have made it to create.

Stephen Baynes


Stephen Baynes joined The Australian Ballet as a dancer in 1976. He left to join the Stuttgart Ballet in 1981 and returned to the company under Maina Gielgud in 1985. His extraordinary talent as a choreographer was first unveiled in 1986 with Strauss Songs, a work created for a company choreographic workshop. In 1988, Stephen won The Australian Ballet’s 25th anniversary choreographic competition with Ballade.

Catalyst, Stephen Baynes’ first commissioned work for The Australian Ballet, premiered in 1990 and toured nationally. It was performed on the 1992 tour of London, where it received a nomination for Best Dance Production at the Laurence Olivier Awards and again in 1994 on the company’s tour of the United States. In 1995 Stephen was appointed The Australian Ballet’s resident choreographer. Since then he has created 20 works for the company. In 2005 Unspoken Dialogues received the Helpmann Award for Best Choreography and both Molto Vivace and Constant Variants received the Betty Pounder Award for Best Choreography at the Green Room Awards.

Stephen has had works commissioned by New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Sydney Dance Company, the Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet, and the Hong Kong Ballet.

Swan Lake

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