Lowdown:
What: Royal New Zealand Ballet, Black Swan, White Swan
Where & when: Bruce Mason Centre, June 7 - 8; ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, June 20 - 22; other dates and venues throughout New Zealand

Mario Radacovsky was just 27 when he found himself in hospital fighting for his life.

Doctors told Radacovsky, then a young star of the Netherlands Dans Company, had he waited four more weeks, the cancer that had quietly been spreading through his body for up to four years would have killed him.

As it was, they didn't know if they could save him. Hooked to chemotherapy machines, he lost weight and his hair. A shadow of his former self, Radacovsky looked out of the window and saw swans alighting on a small lake outside.

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"If I live," he thought to himself, "I'd like to make my own version of Swan Lake."

Twenty-one years later, he's in the Wellington rehearsal studio of the Royal New Zealand Ballet watching dancers bring to life Black Swan, White Swan. Radacovsky set to work on it almost as soon as he was discharged from hospital making a pas de deux – a dance for two – which focused on the white swan of the piece.

Black Swan, White Swan is now touring New Zealand. Photo/Michael Auer.
Black Swan, White Swan is now touring New Zealand. Photo/Michael Auer.

It was performed at a 1998 benefit concert to raise funds for cancer charities; later, he created a piece featuring the black swan. Radacovsky was delighted that audiences loved both. In the back of his mind were the initial reactions to Swan Lake, performed to Tchaikovsky's music and presented to audiences who didn't like it at all.

Then again, maybe in 1877, audiences weren't ready for a love story of such intensity crafted from Russian and German folktales about a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer but discovered by a prince who falls in love with her. It took a revival 18 years later, by famed choreographer Marius Petipa, to turn Swan Lake into one of the world's most popular ballets.

"I had so much respect for Swan Lake because the classical version, I think, is such a genius piece," says Radacovsky. "I said to myself, 'if I do my own, it has to be completely different otherwise what's the point of just messing around with something that is already incredibly good?'"

In 2012, Patricia Barker, then artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet, urged him to bring the white and black swan pieces together so he did. How did he make it different to Swan Lake? By focusing on Prince Siegfried who, battling his own mortality, gives into his most primal desires and finds himself caught between two women.

"Swan Lake usually focuses on the women; this is about the prince and his struggle with love and betrayal," says Radacovsky. "The world doesn't need a new Swan Lake, but I just felt I would love to speak out loud my story. It's not about the cancer; it's about times when you have something to battle against, to overcome and how you deal with that."

Patricia Barker says Black Swan, White Swan is a contemporary re-telling of a traditional story and perfect for our times. Photo/Ross Brown.
Patricia Barker says Black Swan, White Swan is a contemporary re-telling of a traditional story and perfect for our times. Photo/Ross Brown.

Barker is sure local audiences will love Radacovsky's take on Swan Lake. Since arriving in New Zealand two year ago, she's made sure to take the time to watch and listen to local audiences.

"I absolutely think it will resonate with NZ audiences," she says. "Mario and I have known each other since 1989; we've worked together and I've watched him grow as a choreographer. His dramatic approach to telling a story, I think, transcends generations and time and it becomes very personal, very emotional. His work really resonates with audiences. His movement quality – even though the work is in the contemporary style, it has neo-classical edges to it - it's contemporary but the base is classical and that's what thrills me when Mario creates – it pushes dancers, it pushes audiences and it's a lot of fun.

"For the two years that I have been here, I have sat in the audience at each centre we have performed in and listened to the audience. I hear them when they gasp when the curtain opens; I think about what excites them, what makes them think and what do they discuss?

"I love it when you go out into the lobby and they are all liking a different aspect of the work; some of the Mixed Bills that we have done – someone will love a work and someone else will say, 'well, I don't understand that work' and then someone else says, 'how can you not?' so it creates dialogue – 'I want to talk to you about that work' – and that's when I think art is exciting, when it creates dialogue and makes us think. It make us happy, we go through different emotions and it resonates with our lives and who we are."