English National Ballet Impresses with Swan Lake

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake: Dancers and Orchestra of the English National Ballet, conducted by Gavin Sutherland, Coliseum, London, 3.8.2012. (JPr)

Photo credit: Sian Trenberth


Last year ballet companies were delighted if they had scheduled Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake because the success of the movie Black Swan often ensured sold-out performances. English National Ballet were ‘doubly blessed’ because of the notoriety caused by BBC 4’s documentary on the company (Agony & Ecstasy) and the fact that its opening episode focussed on the rehearsals for the previous year’s Swan Lake performances ‘in the round’ at the Royal Albert Hall. Both the film and the TV programme turned the role of choreographer into a figure you love to hate – though in the case of ENB’s Derek Deane, endlessly playing up for the cameras, he was more pantomime villain than evil dictator. He was entertainingly condescending towards his replacement Odette/Odile, Daria Klimentová forging a ‘winter-spring’ partnership with the youthful Vadim Muntagirov. These dancers got great reviews at the time and often afterwards, so their announced performances in ENB’s summer season at the London Coliseum in another revival of Deane’s proscenium theatre version of the classic ballet was eagerly awaited. Sadly it was not to be. Apparently there were visa issues for Muntagirov, though why Klimentová could still not dance I am not sure.

Originally only Fabian Reimair as Rothbart remained but even he was a ‘no show’ and was replaced by James Streeter making an intriguing real-life ‘husband and wife’ pairing with Erina Takahashi’s Odette/Odile. To complete the trio of principals Zdenek Konvalina made his debut as Prince Siegfried. If he had any doubts and needed someone to mentor him through this important occasion he needed only to turn to his ‘Tutor’ on stage, Michael Coleman, who was in the first major ballet I saw nearly 40 years ago performing the Bluebird pas de deux in The Sleeping Beauty.

I have not seen any version of this Swan Lake before though Peter Farmer’s chocolate box-like set designs are familiar from his previous work, especially for Sir Peter Wright. So ‘serviceable’ are they that they could – with a few adjustments –frame stagings of Coppélia, Giselle and Beauty just as well. With some atmospheric lighting from Howard Harrison and lots of dry ice it works particular well for the ‘other worldly’ moonlit lakeside scenes of Act II and IV with the hints of Caspar David Friedrich, and reasonably so for the palace exterior and interior needed for Acts I and III.

I look forward to seeing the ‘in the round’ version in June 2013 at the Royal Albert Hall and perhaps the prologue is left over from that but Derek Deane shows us, somewhat unnecessarily, the evil sorcerer, Rothbart, who bewitches a princess and turns her into a swan – a symbol of beauty and purity. Then having illuminated part of the story that is often ignored, Deane lets character drift to concentrate on the dancing and movement on stage … and very beautiful that often is too. Siegfried enters and does very little for about 25 minutes during his own birthday celebrations – risibly he even picks up a book to read at one point. Thankfully, the act closes with the increasingly familiar sad, haunting variation for Siegfried. This solo was created by Nureyev for his famous 1960s Swan Lake I saw him dance several years ago in Vienna. Since then – as here – many companies have included it in their productions with new choreography. The lank-haired Konvalina revealed himself to be a wonderfully expressive and lyrical dancer, even though his acting skills are never put under test in this production. Perhaps when Tamara Rojo takes over as artistic director this autumn this will be an area she will give some attention to.

Act II is basically traditional in the overall choreography that is based on that of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with some additions from Frederick Ashton. Siegfried meets Odette and through mime she tells him that she is the Swan Queen and that the lake is made of the tears of her mother who cried until she died of grief. The spell can only be broken if a man vows to love her and no other. Siegfried makes that vow. The ‘half-man, half-bird’ Rothbart looks exactly that and does no dancing and just rushes around about the stage and at times waves cape-like wings, here James Streeter was allowed more stage presence than many around him. Erina Takahashi was soft and vulnerable as Odette with exquisite jumps, spins and balances. I sensed a lack of chemistry between her and Konvalina though he partnered her sensitively in their pas de deux.

Act III had the usual series of supposed international dances (Barry Drummond was a revelation in the vivacious Neapolitan one) and the famous Black Swan pas de deux for Siegfried and Odile. When Rothbart and Odile make their entrance along with two bald-headed, gargoyle-like followers there is little reaction from the ladies and gentlemen of the court. There had been some well-portrayed tension between the Prince and his mother (the imposing Jane Haworth) over his impending marriage but now there is no sense of how Rothbart fits in with everyone else though he is soon seated at the Queen’s right hand. Siegfried falls in love with Odile on the spot, leaving no need for her to convince him she is Odette. I thought Erina Takahashi was less convincing as Odile and not sufficiently conniving or seductive. Though once again she danced wonderfully and together with Konvalina they were both technically excellent in their pas de deux. I like his soft landings very much and Takahashi rose to the occasion with bravura and effortless fouetté turns during the coda.

Derek Deane’s Swan Lake benefits from one of the better interpretations of the final act and this found the ENB corps de ballet on particularly enchanting form. Once again all the swans had suitably soft arms and pin sharp feet, even though, in my opinion, they were a little noisy.

Mentioning ‘noisy’ brings me to Gavin Sutherland and the orchestra of the English National Ballet. It has taken me a few days to recover from the recorded Tchaikovsky music blaring out at the same venue the previous week during the Peter Schaufuss Ballet’s residency, however so raucous did the music sound at the beginning of this Swan Lake that I was looking around for loudspeakers again. I think the musical accompaniment will improve over English National Ballet’s ten performances but one or two moments was not up to these musicians’ usual very high standards.

Nevertheless, this Swan Lake will not disappoint and if you have not seen it and want to see a ballet company – money problems notwithstanding – performing at its very best then get a ticket. I was someone who thought London would be impossible to travel around during the Olympic Games but so many like me have been put off by the thought that as a result the traffic has been much less than expected. All this and with Tamara Rojo soon to join the roster of dancers – hopefully even better times are ahead for English National Ballet.

Jim Pritchard

For details of all English National Ballet’s forthcoming performances visit www.ballet.org.uk.