ENB’s Swan Lake Tugs at the Heart Strings

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky/Deane, Swan Lake: Dancers and Orchestra of English National Ballet / Tom Seligman (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 15.6.2013. (JPr)

Principal Dancers:

Dmitri Gruzdyev (Prince Siegfried)
Fernanda Oliveira (Odette/Odile)
Zhanat Atymtayev (Rothbart)

Swan Lake 'in-the-round' at the Royal Albert Hall (c) English National Ballet
Swan Lake ‘in-the-round’ at the Royal Albert Hall (c) English National Ballet

Before this ‘in-the-round’ Swan Lake all I knew about such a ballet performance was from the opening episode of BBC 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the English National Ballet a couple of years ago called Agony & Ecstasy – that focused on rehearsals for Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall. It was infamous for the choreographer, Derek Deane, acting up for the cameras and out-Horwooding even the great pantomime villain of dance, Craig Revel of that surname.

What takes a little time to get used to is the lack of scenery from the version seen at the London Coliseum and elsewhere that has chocolate box-like set designs from Peter Farmer. There is no great sense of a castle courtyard for the Act I (an expanded Prologue) and a few drapes and chandeliers are all we get for the Act III Great Hall setting and this leave lots of space to be filled by voluminous amounts of dry ice for the ‘other worldly’ moonlit lakeside scenes of Act II and IV. What atmosphere there is mostly comes from Howard Harrison‘s lighting that is surprising subtle for such a big performance space.

With the orchestra in its normal place spread across below the Grand Organ – even though rather higher up – there is a huge area that needs to be filled with dancers and movement. Truth-be-told it does not start well. At least in its ‘normal version’ that Derek Deane brings us – even though somewhat unnecessarily – the evil sorcerer, Rothbart, bewitching a princess and turning her into a swan, a symbol of beauty and purity. Here there is none of this and it is basically straight into Prince Siegfried’s birthday celebrations, townsfolk and the ladies and gentlemen of the court enter down the steps through the audience and if they were not enough, there are tumblers and jugglers but surprisingly no cake with candles!

I am being flippant of course and I don’t want to give the impression that I did not enjoy the performance as I did – very much indeed. But surely somebody must have realised since this Swan Lake was first put on in 1997 that Act I goes on far too long even with the expanded Pas de Douze and the exuberant contribution of the Tring Park School child dancers. Prince Siegfried enters, leaps three times and then does nothing for 30 minutes expect mope around. Finally he gets to dance his melancholic solo variation made famous by Rudolf Nureyev. This is the first real sense of drama that we get from this version and the vastly experienced Dmitri Gruzdyev shows studied control and a great depth of emotion here. Elsewhere in this Act he plays the distracted Prince very well, even though he is not the youngest of ENB’s lead principals.

The young children at this Saturday afternoon matinee were becoming – as I was – increasingly restless by all this faffing around and what we wanted were swans and a lake. When that appeared for Act II everything took off as Zhanat Atymtayev – the eye-catching ‘half-man, half-bird’ Rothbart – might have done if he had flapped his cape-like wings even more vigorously as he rushed around the arena though the ‘mist’. This ‘in-the-round’ Act II is basically traditional but celebrated for Deane bringing the audience 60 tutu-ed swans to marvel at. 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.

Despite the grand gestures of ballet mime I can imagine that at the top of the Royal Albert Hall some of this story-telling during the more intimate moments would get a bit lost but the audience could still relish the spectacle of the well-drilled unanimity of the swans. Earlier some of the corps work looked a little ragged as though they were all still recovering from the night before. Fernanda Oliveira was a revelation to me as Odette, a poetic dancer with graceful arms who truly embodied that pathos of her character’s plight. There was a genuine frisson when he caught sight of Gruzdyev’s Siegfried for the first time and I felt genuine chemistry in the pairing.

Act III involved the usual series of supposed international dances, Nancy Osbaldeston (ENB’s 2013 Emerging Dancer) seemed able to fill even the vast Royal Albert Hall with her engaging personality during the Czardas. It is a pity she might be a little on the petite side for Odette/Odile but that never stopped Lesley Collier. Shiori Kase and Nathan Young caught the eye with a spirited Neapolitan Dance. Then came the familiar Black Swan pas de deux for Siegfried and Odile. When Rothbart and his imposter make their entrance along with two tumbling bald-headed, gargoyle-like hangers-on, once again, as at the London Coliseum, I reflected how despite there having been some well-portrayed tension between the Prince and his mother (a suitably regal Jane Haworth) in Act I over his impending marriage there is absolutely no sense of how this Rothbart fits in with everyone else at the palace. I thought Fernanda Oliveira’s conniving, seductive grin told us all we needed to know about her Odile. Despite a sense of choreographic over-inflation to the way they had to move around, both Gruzdyev and Oliveira were technically assured and their pas de deux brought out the best in both of them. I marvelled at the effortlessmess his still soft landings and Oliveira’s show-stopping fouettés even though the need to turn to all sides of the auditorium while turning added to their tremendous challenge. It seemed even more a gymnastics feat than it usually does.

The emotional heart of story resides in Act IV as Siegfried begs for forgiveness from Odette for having been conned into swearing true love to Odile. The battle between good and evil takes off as they unite to defeat Rothbart who in a true coup de théâtre flaps his last as he disappears through the floor. Even though it is a little unclear that at the end all the swan-maidens are released from his enslavement and Siegfried and Odette can live happily ever after, I noticed that I had become so engrossed by the story – as expressed by the wonderful Gruzdyev and Oliveira – that soppily there was a tear in my eye that I could not blame on the copious dry ice! Once again all credit here to the ENB’s captivating Swans with their beautifully soft arms, immaculate timing and precise footwork.

Are you listening Mr Gubbay (who presented this Swan Lake with ENB) but I was mightily impressed by what I heard from the English National Ballet’s Orchestra throughout the performance with the highlight being the romantic sounds of the cello and violin during the Act II pas de deux. It seemed so much better than the equivalent during his ‘in-the-round’ opera evenings and I believe this was achieved – even though amplified – by having the orchestra positioned where they more usually are. Tom Seligman was the conductor and though his account of Tchaikovsky’s score was no way revelatory – how could it be? – it maintained ENB’s high musical standards.

There are various casts during the remaining performances in this season that ends on 23 June and if you have not experienced the undoubted spectacle of ballet ‘in-the-round’ before, do go or return for Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Albert Hall this time next year.

Jim Pritchard

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