Jean-Christophe Maillot Reinvents Classic Tchaikovsky Ballet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky: Lac (after Swan Lake): Dancers of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. London Coliseum, London, 9.4.2014. (JPr)

Lac by Jean-Christophe Maillot c Laurent Philippe
Lac by Jean-Christophe Maillot (c) Laurent Philippe

Stephan Bourgond: The Prince
Mimoza Koike: The Queen
Alvaro Pieto: The King
Jeroen Verbruggen: The Confidant of the Prince
Maude Sabourin: Her Majesty of the Night
April Ball: The Black Swan
Anja Behrend: The White Swan

Choreography: Jean-Christophe Maillot
Costumes: Philippe Guillotel
Sets: Ernest Pignon-Ernest
Lighting: Jean-Christophe Maillot and Samuel Théry.

In a week when I saw the biblical ‘Watchers’ – who were supposedly angels – quite literally transformed into lava-encrusted robots for the new film Noah, anything is possible when an art form reimagines a timeless tale for a modern generation. The filmmakers tried to bring to the ancient flood mythology some of the video game imagery a young cinema-going audience is familiar with. Who doesn’t know the story of Swan Lake? There is a princess living under a curse as a swan, there is the prince who falls in love with her, the black swan who seduces him – with tragedy or happiness at the end, depending on the version you are watching. All of this set against Tchaikovsky’s sublimely passionate and magisterial nineteenth-century score.

What can ‘reinventing the wheel’ do with Swan Lake to make it relevant – well sex it up seems the way to go – with the ambiguity of Matthew Bourne’s male swans (in his famous version that to my shame I have never seen) and, here choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot – aided and abetted by author Jean Rouard  – shows us a dysfunctional family with an undersexed prince, his oversexed friends, the black swan progeny from the king’s marital infidelity with Her Majesty of the Night, hints of incest, murder, nightmarish swans (a homage to Bourne I suspect), and two enforcers (Archangels) for the almost ever-present ‘Her Maj’ who is a typical fairytale evil queen.

Essentially, it is a coming-of-age tale for the Prince as the King wants him to ‘sow his wild oats’ before settling down and marrying although that does not seem to have stopped his father from straying. The world Maillot shows us clearly has problems and misogyny seems to be another of its woes because women are clearly divided into two groups, those that are slept with … and those that can be married.  Anja Behrend’s White Swan is innocent, pure and virtuous with her hands deformed by white feathers, April Ball’s Black Swan is a sexual predator and her mother (Maude Sabourin) seems to have even more voracious appetites.

There is a filmed prologue (to new music by Bertrand Maillot) in grainy black-and-white that shows an adolescent prince parted form the princess who will become the White Swan and how the King is the father of the Black Swan. (Those of a certain age like me will see in the masks the King and Queen wore the look of the Cybermen from classic series Dr Who stories on TV.) We rush headlong into the Prince’s birthday celebrations and his first encounter with the Black Swan. Clearly the Queen is eager to keep her son close by and seems inordinately fond of him and – as if this family was not screwed-up enough already – there is this other dubious subtext implied. What Maillot does well in Lac is to expand the amount of steps before the story of Swan Lake takes flight, especially in Act I. Usually there is so much faffing around with all the parading and mime and too little genuine actual dancing. Here there are expanded roles for the male dancers (as Nureyev used to do in his productions) and a rather more balanced cast including the a hyperactive Confidant for the Prince, an expanded hunting party, the broadened roles for the King, Queen, Black Swan and the sorcerer Von Rothbart, here as Her Majesty of the Night.

Philippe Guillotel’s couture costumes are shiny (the royals), brightly coloured (the hunting party and their women) otherwise mostly, black or white. The sets by Ernest Pignon-Ernest are minimal with hanging columns for the court scenes in Acts I and II and part of a stone circle for Act II, with everything lit often a little too darkly at times by Jean-Christophe Maillot and Samuel Théry.

My problem was with the heavily cut and new arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s peerless music. I am very happy to experience any amount of reworking of an over-familiar story but the music should be left alone. Maillot’s choreography was sharply angular and often very awkwardly frantic. There is one compelling reason for this and that is that a recorded soundtrack was used by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. That may have been the tempo that Tchaikovsky demanded however it was too fast for the dancers having to cross the vast Coliseum stage and they were, too often, playing catch-up. The dancers never had the chance to make their movement flow with the music.

However, there was much I liked and particularly more so towards the end of the two-hour evening. In Act I Liisa Hämäläinen was given some silkily lyrical moments as The Vain One and there was a scene with some effective duetting between the two amorous couples – the Prince with the Black Swan and the King with Her Majesty – and the Queen was shown bitterly angry and try to spilt them apart. In Act II, the entry of a rather bedraggled group of swans (called ‘Chimeras’) coming on backward with their rear ends sticking up in the air was better than it might seem. When they come to rest one toe shoe beats angrily on the floor – when the Black Swan does this in Act III, whilst imitating the White Swan, it gives the game away. For the main pas de deux in Act II the White Swan’s feathers disappear to reveal hands and there is a little wit and romance for her and the Prince but once again the onrushing music does not allow for any real depth of emotional involvement here. So in the end, the Prince mistakenly marries the Black Swan who when exposed is murdered by the Queen. As all the loose ends of Jean Rouaud’s dramaturgy were tied up and began to have some dramatic veracity I fleetingly was swept up in it all. A programme note states, ‘At this point in the story, a happy ending is doubtful.’ Too right, as if we did not know! In the best imagery seen all evening a billowing black cloth is dropped onstage and the Prince and the White Swan are swallowed up in a swirling maelstrom

The dancers of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo appeared enthusiastic performers, they needed to be light, lightning fast and as precise as possible – and they were. They got lots of opportunities to emote but few chances to be genuinely expressive. Stephan Bourgond was the youthfully appealing Prince, striving to escape bad parenting (Mimoza Koike as an appropriately clingy Queen and Alvaro Pieto as the brutish overbearing King). Jeroen Verbruggen caught the eye as the Prince’s Confidant and he made more of this small role than there probably actually was to it. Maude Sabourin effectively ‘chewed the scenery’ as Her Majesty, April Ball was a sexy and devious Black Swan, whilst Asier Edeso and Bruno Roque rushed around doing their evil queen’s bidding as the Archangels of Darkness. It was for the White Swan, Anja Behrend, with her fragile allure to bring some heart to the proceedings but the music never truly allowed her the opportunities she deserved.

Jim Pritchard

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