Swanning around the globe

The Australian Dance Theatre’s ‘Birdbrain’ reinterprets a classic ballet

by Katrina Wilber

The original choreographers of “Swan Lake” would pirouette in their graves at this production.

Australian Dance Theatre’s “Birdbrain” takes the classical ballet technique of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s version and adds everything from gymnastics and yoga to martial arts. But it’s all in a day’s work for the company’s dancers.

At the turn of the millennium, the company, not happy with the idea of wearing party hats and tooting cheap paper horns as most of the world’s population, instead chose to dance on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. That same year, “Birdbrain” hit the stage.

Created by Garry Stewart, the artistic director, the 70-minute ballet features 11 dancers, surrealistic video art and dramatic lighting effects.

Stewart said he figures most people already know the story of “Swan Lake.” He said they know a prince meets a beautiful girl and tells her he’ll love her forever, but the prince doesn’t know she turns into a swan because she’s under a magician’s spell. The prince flirts with her evil twin at a party, but, of course, love eventually conquers all.

Stewart leaves that story behind and dives deep underneath it to break down some of the narrative’s central themes.

He trades Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s score for techno and pointe shoes for bare feet. His style of choreography, characterized by a “no-compromise” attitude toward risk and danger combined with technically demanding movements, has been called “one of the most hazardous explosions of movement seen in London in years” by a critic in The Times of London.

Formed in 1965, Australian Dance Theatre trains its dancers in myriad physical forms. They study classical and contemporary dance, martial arts, break dance and gymnastics.

“Birdbrain,” which has become the company’s “cygneture” work, has earned rave reviews and standing ovations from audiences worldwide because of its originality and intensity.

“Birdbrain” reminds its audiences everything old really can be new again. While classical ballet in its purest form, including the original “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker,” still has incredible audience appeal, it’s important to realize the potential for new works that hide under these masterpieces.

Restaging beloved classics, whether it’s a Shakespearean love story or a classical ballet, is always a difficult task. But artists such as Stewart are up to the challenge.