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Australian Ballet's 'Swan Lake' a royal disconnect

 Australian Ballet's 'Swan Lake' a royal disconnect
Australian Ballet takes on Graeme Murphy's reimagined "Swan Lake." (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

In an age of rampant ballet revisionism, finding an unorthodox "Swan Lake" isn't difficult. In Denmark there's one that depicts the life of Tchaikovsky. Germany offers a version that focuses on Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. And on Thursday, the Australian Ballet brought to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion a retelling ostensibly based on the relationship between England's Prince Charles, Princess Diana (his wife) and Camilla Parker Bowles (his mistress).

Unfortunately, the social context and characterizations remain so vague in Graeme Murphy's three-hour extravaganza that the story might just as well be about Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. Murphy created his "Swan Lake" in 2002, long after Matthew Bourne's took on the British royal family with greater pertinence, and, like Bourne, Murphy drives his protagonist to the brink of madness.

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In Murphy's remake the swans no longer represent a poetic, supernatural fantasy but, rather, a symptom of mental illness — a deranged hallucination. Even so, the lakeside scenes provide an authentic "Swan Lake" experience, partly because the score has been left relatively unmolested and works its magic even against the dowdy vision imposed by designer Kristian Fredrikson's shaggy tutus and backless bodices.

What's more, Murphy creatively builds on tradition in some passages — the cygnets, for example — expanding the original choreographic concept to accommodate the company's admirable 21st century technique. The new swan-corps formations also qualify.

However, despite a strong performance by a locally recruited orchestra conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, musical vandalism runs rampant in the first and third acts — not merely wholesale cuts and transpositions, but action plans that undercut the score and make it seem clumsy and unsuitable.

Since all three of Murphy's major characters go bonkers sooner or later from unrequited love, music that Tchaikovsky intended to accompany divertissements gets drafted for dramatic confrontations, and the result is often a hopeless disconnect between sight and sound.

Sometimes those sights will remind you not only of Bourne but Antony Tudor (especially "Pillar of Fire") and "Giselle." But does Murphy successfully reconceptualize the sophisticated, resilient Diana as a helpless, addled victim? Never. Prince Charles reportedly once told Parker Bowles that he wished to be reincarnated as her tampon. Fortunately, that kind of gynecological devotion is also missing from the ballet.

As Murphy tells the story, Prince Siegfried (yes, he keeps his original name) marries the mousy, unhappy Odette but clearly adores the Baroness Von Rothbart, a standard ballet vamp who is tiresome in triumph and even more tiresome in defeat. In the first of three sets of principals scheduled during the Music Center engagement, Lana Jones danced the role Thursday with skill and passion. But there's no reality to the character, nothing for her to do but repeatedly fling herself at Kevin Jackson's Siegfried.

Gifted with hyper-extended line, Jackson partnered powerfully as Siegfried and made what he could of an utterly unsympathetic role through sheer intensity. And that left the rejected, desperate, crazed and then inexplicably rejuvenated Odette of Madeleine Eastoe to win all hearts through faultless technique, extraordinary stamina and acting prowess well beyond what Murphy's ballet deserves.

His style demands more torso mobility than classicism commonly offers, though nothing so daring and even quirky as the innovative, anti-classical Mats Ek "Swan Lake" for the Cullberg Ballet, seen long ago at UCLA. His previous career was marked by bold, high-profile productions fusing classic themes with contemporary expression, and you can sense his attraction to this project.

Here and there, a step or gesture quotes or reflects the tradition that Murphy wants to build upon or creatively subvert. But these glints of older, better "Swan Lake" productions simply heighten the sense that you're in the wrong place with the wrong choreographer — one who makes a mess of the storytelling in Act 1 and a bore of the party scene in Act 3.

But you never feel you're watching the wrong company. In its 52nd year, the Australian Ballet fields not only strong principals but secondary dancers of impressive skill and vivacity. Their obvious excellence has seduced Murphy into providing showpieces that derail his already feeble narrative drive. But you welcome them anyway as balletic relief. Finally, unimpeded by their costumes and Fredrikson's tilted lake, the large Aussie swan corps unfailingly dances up to the level of the music. Who could ask for anything more?

For those who'd like to compare Murphy's anything-goes "Swan Lake" with a more traditional staging, Los Angeles Ballet dances its familiar version in three Southland locations through the first of November. And if you want to think it's about Princess Di, Lady Gaga or Mother Teresa, feel free.

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'Swan Lake,' the Austrailian Ballet

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

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When: 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $34-$150

Info: (213) 972-0711, www.musiccenter.org

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