Swans Rise Memorably From The Lake In Milton Keynes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake: Dancers and Orchestra of the English National Ballet / Alex Ingram (conductor), Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, 15.11.2014. (JPr)

English National Ballet’s Swan Lake (c) ASH

Alejandro Virelles(Prince Siegfried)
Laurretta Summerscales (Odette/Odile)
James Streeter (Rothbart) 

Choreography: Derek Deane after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Additional Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Design: Peter Farmer
Lighting: Howard Harrison

I have a great affection for Swan Lake and its return to the repertory to English National Ballet for their current tour and a Christmas residency at the London Coliseum demanded a visit to Milton Keynes to see one of the early performances. When everything is nearly perfect as it was here, the synthesis of the fairy tale-like story, Tchaikovsky’s hauntingly beautiful score and choreography can make it a magical – transportive – experience and often an extremely emotional one depending on the staging. I am attracted to it as well because I wonder whether ‘The story behind why Tchaikovsky composed Swan Lake’ should not be such ‘a mystery to scholars’ as English National Ballet’s music director, Gavin Sutherland, suggests in his introduction in the programme. I suggest it had much to do with the composer’s admiration for Richard Wagner because a swan motif and the idea of redemption through love originates in Lohengrin, an opera Tchaikovsky admired very much.

I came to Swan Lake in my early days from performances with Rudolf Nureyev as Prince Siegfried. Although I do not go back quite that far, he had been invited during his first season with the Royal Ballet to dance the role in the June 1962 production rearranged by Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton. Here it was that, at the end of Act I, Nureyev introduced a new variation, choreographed around the andante sostenuto which precedes the pas de trois in the score and which used to be habitually cut. This melancholic solo – expressing Siegfried’s anguish about what the future holds for him now he has been told to marry – was considered so good that the Royal Ballet retained it in subsequent productions and it turns up in many other versions of Swan Lake which have since followed, such as this one by Derek Deane for English National Ballet that credits Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov as well as Ashton.

In October 1964, when Nureyev choreographed the complete work at the Vienna Opera House, he typically fleshed out the role of the Prince, and above all, developed his psychology, using fantasies which lead him to ruin as he runs frantically after the illusion of a woman/swan. I was fortunate in later years to see him dance this in Vienna, so cumulatively with each subsequent performance of Swan Lake I get to see, comparison cannot be avoided and there is the potential that I can never quite recapture the thrill and engagement I had in those early encounters with the ballet. However, English National Ballet under Tamara Rojo’s increasingly inspirational leadership is becoming a company that rarely disappoints and even if I was not as emotional moved as I would be by a more dramatically-engaging production, I was suitably enraptured and in awe of all the wonderful talent that the company has at its disposal. My only wish is that it was gathering together more leading British dancers and was not quite so international. However, if that is the price needing to be paid to see dancing that is wonderfully natural and expressive and not as intellectual and technical as seen from the Royal Ballet at the moment … then it is indeed a price worth paying. (Admittedly this Swan Lake did have an Odette/Odile from Surrey and a Rothbart from Essex!)

Peter Farmer’s chocolate box-like set designs are familiar from his previous work, particularly for Sir Peter Wright. So ‘serviceable’ are they that they could – with a few adjustments – frame parts of Coppélia, Giselle and Sleeping Beauty. With some atmospheric lighting from Howard Harrison and lots of dry ice it works especially well for the 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. Derek Deane shows us – as a somewhat unnecessary prologue – the evil sorcerer, Rothbart, bewitching a princess and turning her into a swan, a symbol of beauty and purity. Then having illuminated part of the story that is often ignored, we are now taken to the palace where Siegfried enters and does very little for much too long during his own birthday celebrations. It was wonderful how none of the dancers framing the stage throughout the ballet ever ‘switched off’ for a moment and there were some delightful touches such a one of the dancers sneaking a drink at the back of the stage during the Pas de Douze and Polonaise. Thankfully, the act closes with that variation for Siegfried and Alejandro Virelles, ENB’s newest Principal from Cuba, showed he is a wonderfully supple and lyrical dancer, even if here he was more dreamily introspective than expressively sad.

Act II is basically traditional and 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 eventually makes that vow. Alina Cojocaru was originally scheduled to perform but was now dancing in Russia and her replacement was First Soloist, Laurretta Summerscales, who took her opportunity well and did not make me miss her more illustrious colleague for a second. She made us really care about Odette’s plight and had suitably soft swan arms that with her head movements and a quizzical look on her face clearly identified her as otherworldly. Just for a fleeting moment there seemed some wariness in her reaction to her suitor that was more due to a lack of rehearsal than the developing story, but once this was overcome Virelles partnered her with ease and sensitivity throughout the rest of the ballet. The ‘half-man, half-bird’ Rothbart looks exactly that and does no dancing and just rushes about the stage waving cape-like wings; James Streeter gives his character considerable malevolent presence during his appearances.

In Act II as Odile, Summerscales went over to the dark side and was suitably bewitching and seductive, clearly relishing the 32 fiendishly difficult, bravura, fouettés en tournant which – if not absolutely secure – were thrilling nonetheless. Virelles excelled with his wonderful elevation, speed and soft light landings; Deane’s staging does not demand much acting from him but what he does have to do he makes believable.

This Swan Lake benefits from one of the better interpretations of the final act and this found the English National Ballet’s corps de ballet on particularly enchanting form. Once again all the swans had impeccable synchronicity, suitably soft arms and pin sharp feet and like everyone else on stage they were admirably quiet. The opening of Act IV – as the swans emerge from the mist on the moonlit lake – will live long in my memory. Here it is given an ending that is both ‘tragic’ and ‘happy’, as despite the two lovers committing suicide Rothbart is defeated and the swans set free by the power of Siegfried and Odette’s love.

The dancing throughout was very accomplished and I particularly enjoyed the Act I Pas de Trois (with Fernando Bufala partnering Shiori Kase and the always eye-catching Ksenia Ovsyanick) and the flashy and ebullient Neapolitan Dance with Crystal Costa and Bufala banging their tambourines for all they were worth. Alex Ingram and the Orchestra of the English National Ballet accompanied the dancing splendidly. Mostly the music was up to the high standards they usually achieve, however, one or two instrumentalists gave evidence that it was the end of a busy week rather than the beginning of one. Nevertheless, this Swan Lake will not disappoint whether you are a veteran ballet-goer, or are experiencing something like this for the first time – as many evidently were here in Milton Keynes. Please catch any of the forthcoming performances on the tour if you can.

Jim Pritchard

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