Billed as "A Swan Lake for Our Time", the Royal NZ Ballet's post-classical Black Swan, White Swan offers a pared-back, stripped-down ballet that examines the existential impact of cancer. Slovakian choreographer Mario Radacovsky created it in 2012 and it is radically different from the traditional Swan Lake - reading the programme notes may help you follow the story.

A lake is marvellously conjured (by Marek Holly and Michael Auer) from digital projections over a white dance floor. The lake is beside a hospital; a flock of bare-footed swans roost on the lake, dressed in white lycra singlets and bicycle shorts. Their arms and feet conform to an array of swan-like poses, often awkwardly splayed across the water in held positions. Tchaikovsky's lush Swan Lake music provides the score, but is often used as aural wallpaper, ignoring the motifs that have traditionally cued the drama and romance of the action.

Photo / Stephen A'Court
Photo / Stephen A'Court

Siegfried (danced impressively by Paul Mathews) is now a three-piece-suit-wearing businessman diagnosed with cancer, and his nemesis Rothbart (thrillingly performed by Kihiro Kusukami) is cancer personified, dressed in a black suit with scarlet lining. The two men are well matched, and Kusukami provides a prowling shadow self who unsettles Mathews. Their increasingly physical interactions end in knock-down brawling.

The White Swan (Sara Garbowski) is Siegfried's clinically distant oncologist but also his consort on social occasions. She delivers the diagnosis that fells him to the ground, and the drugs that blur the lines between fantasy and reality, but he also nestles in her arms as they dance in a party scene. The spirited Black Swan (Kirby Selchow) is associated with Rothbart; Siegfried briefly lusts after her, and their red-tinged interactions in Act 2 offer a highpoint of passion and lust that is otherwise absent.

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Photo / Stephen A'Court
Photo / Stephen A'Court

Featured solos and pas de deux provide virtuoso highlights but at times the corps de ballet's social dancing is more suited to Dancing with The Stars. The prevalence of cancer in New Zealand, and the shocking effects it brings to those who must deal
with it, are absolutely relevant material for ballet and it is good to see it being tackled in this way. But the connection to Swan Lake seems superfluous and sets expectations that add confusion.

What: Royal New Zealand Ballet – Black Swan, White Swan
Where & when: Aotea Centre, ASB Theatre; tour continues in Christchurch, Dunedin and Blenheim until Saturday, July 6. rnzb.org.nz