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Swan Lake on Ice

by Paris Wages

In a swirl of snowflakes and fire The Imperial Ice Stars bring an untraditional Swan Lake to spectacular heights.  Swan Lake on Ice is an enormously entertaining program bursting with unexpected delights.

To begin with the task of transforming the State Theatre into an ice rink requires a sensational amount of effort.  More than 30 hours before curtain, 14 tons of ice are created for the show along with 2500 liters of anti-freeze as well as the constant care of spraying, scraping and resurfacing with hot water to keep the ice as smooth as possible. The result is viewing ice dancing in the comfort of Melbourne’s premiere venue for high art.

This might beg the question of whether or not ice dancing is the appropriate stage for tackling the iconic giant of classical ballet: Swan Lake.  There have been numerous interpretations of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s original story derived from a Russian folk tale. From Mathew Bourne’s all-male rendition to Natalie Portman’s screen performance in Black Swan, almost all have been steeped in the tradition of classical dance.   As of yet we have not seen Swan Lake the Musical.  And perhaps there is a good reason for that.  There is something holy about Swan Lake.  It resonates on almost a spiritual level for balletomanes.  The role of Odette/Odile is only performed by the most accomplished dancers from world-class companies, and it is arguably Tchaikovsky’s most celebrated score.  At 4 years old I was fortunate enough to see Swan Lake performed by the Royal Ballet at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC.  It was an experience that led to a life-long career in dance, and I am confident there are similar stories from other dance professionals.  If you are a purist about classical ballet and music, Swan Lake on Ice might not be the best choice. That having been said there is much to celebrate in this elaborate production.

The cast boasts performers from Russia and Ukraine with several international competition medals under their collective belt.  Principal skaters Bogdan Berezenko and Stanislav Pertsov play Prince Siegfried and his companion Benno, respectively.  Both skaters had complimentary style displaying impressive leaps, fantastic turns and beautiful lines.  Their characters seemed particularly authentic and even light-hearted.

Odette was skated by Olga Sharutenko and Odile by Maria Mukhortova. Both showed artistry in their roles and appeared to skate with great skill.  I had a slight preference for Mukortova who was more reserved in her facial expressions and had exceptional port de bras (carriage of the arms).  Stand-out Sergei Lisiv played the role of villain Baron Von Rothbart with great bravado and a commanding stage presence reminiscent of a modern day Rasputin.  All of the principal skaters performed complex skating moves, several touted as “never been seen in the world of figure skating before.”  The lifts were impressive although some of the transitions were somewhat awkward.   I can imagine that the confines of a proscenium stage provided many challenges for the skaters.

Costume Designer Albina Gabueva was inspired by the Romanov period in Russian history, recreating styles from the early 20thcentury court of Nikolais II.  This gave way to some elegant ballroom scenes with the ensemble skating visually effective patterns and seamless musicality.  The overall smoothness of the production was at times hypnotic. The final duet between Sharutenko and Berezenko as Odette and the Prince was a mesmerizing culmination of music, fluidity, and subtle beauty.  In a show packed with many special effects and captivating tricks, sometimes less is indeed more.

The production was produced and directed by Tony Mercer, a former soccer player stopped short of a career by an injury who later found success in theatre art after securing a degree in Drama Studies in Manchester, England.  In 2004 Mercer started The Imperial Stars on Ice with fellow producers James Cundall and Vladislav Olenin and has since taken the troupe on international tours with great critical and audience success. Swan Lake on Ice premiered in Sydney in 2006 and the Tchaikovsky score was re-arranged by composers Tim A. Duncan and Edward James Barnwell, both hailing from Manchester.  The music was pre-recorded by the Manchester Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Duncan.  The music well-supports Mercer’s thoughtful storyline, although certain artistic licenses with the music I found jarring considering my familiarity with the original score.  The backdrop consisted of a LED projection enhanced by a proscenium frame designed by Aussie Eamon D’Arcy.

Swan Lake on Ice is truly an international production packed with death-defying manoeuvres, exciting special effects and some beautiful artistry.  If you can separate yourself from any preconceived notions or sentimental attachment to the ballet, then expect to be fully entertained and awed by the sheer spectacle of the production and elite skill of the performers.

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