Vasiliev Triumphs in ENB’s Swan Lake

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake: Dancers of the English National Ballet and the English National Ballet / Gavin Sutherland (conductor). London Coliseum, London, 7.1.2015. (JPr)

Alina Cojocaru as (Odile) & Ivan Vasiliev (Siegfried) (c) Arnaud Stephenson

Principal Dancers:
Ivan  Vasiliev  (Prince Siegfried)
Alina Cojocaru (Odette/Odile)
James Streeter (Rothbart)
Choreography: Derek Deane after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Additional Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Design: Peter Farmer
Lighting: Howard Harrison

English National Ballet first nights at the London Coliseum seems to be becoming almost red carpet evenings. I suspect many are either involved with the sponsors – or are prospective financial backers – of the company. Just before the performance started I was one of only a few around me in the stalls not involved in taking a ‘selfie’! For the rest of this review I will use many of my thoughts from the performance of this production last November when ENB were in Milton Keynes during their recent tour – much of what I wrote is even more relevant to this opening night of their current London Coliseum season.

I have a great affection for Swan Lake and when everything is nearly perfect as it was again 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 ENB’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 often seeing it – amongst many other ballets – during his annual ‘Season’ at the same London Coliseum venue in the 1970s. Much earlier dancing the role with the Royal Ballet in June 1962 (in a production rearranged by Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton) it was at the end of Act I that Nureyev introduced a new variation. This was choreographed around the andante sostenuto which precedes the pas de trois in the score and which used to be habitually cut. This melancholic solo expresses Siegfried’s anguish about what the future holds for him now he has been told to marry and was considered so appropriate that the Royal Ballet retained it in subsequent productions. It turns up in many of the 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 and cumulatively – with each subsequent performance of Swan Lake I get to see – comparison cannot be avoided with the potential that I can never quite recapture the thrill and engagement I had in those early encounters with the ballet.

However as I also wrote before, ENB under Tamara Rojo’s increasingly inspirational leadership is becoming a company that rarely disappoints and even if I was not as emotionally moved as I would be by a more dramatically-engaging production, I was suitably enraptured and in awe of all the wonderful talent that it can put on stage. I am not pursuing a UKIP agenda but I do wish they could be – because it is English National Ballet – less of a company of all nations, since only 15 of the 75 artists listed in the programme are seemingly British. However, if this continues to result in dancing that is often so wonderfully natural and expressive and not as intellectual and technical as frequently seen from the Royal Ballet at the moment … then so be it.

Peter Farmer’s delightful chocolate box-like set designs are familiar from much of his other work and they are so ‘serviceable’ that they could – with only a few adjustments – provide the backdrop to 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 homage to Caspar David Friedrich, and reasonably so for the palace exterior and interior needed for Acts I and III.

Derek Deane immediately shows us 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 – probably quite correctly – ignored, we are now taken to the palace where Siegfried enters and does very little for much too long during his own birthday celebrations. Act I 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. In Act II there are the usual national dances that hold up the action before the familiar Black Swan pas de deux when Siegfried is bewitched by Odile. Finally Deane’s Swan Lake benefits from one of the better interpretations of the final act and it opens with the swans memorably emerging from the mist on the moonlit lake. The ending is both ‘tragic’ and ‘happy since despite the two lovers committing suicide Rothbart is defeated and the swans set free by the power of Siegfried and Odette’s love.

Almost exactly 22 years since the early death of Nureyev – and the very day Russians celebrate Christmas Day – a compatriot Ivan Vasiliev triumphed as Siegfried. In his debut in the role he announced himself as one its finest current interpreters and totally banished memories of his last performances at the London Coliseum in the rather dispiriting ‘Solo for Two’ with Natalia Osipova last August. This was a real coup for ENB who have also enticed guest appearances from a number of other charismatic and talented young male dancers during this current run. Vasiliev left the Bolshoi to be given more opportunities to dance roles such as Siegfried which he was unable to dance back home because he is more muscular and testosterone-fuelled than the sensitive and willowy types preferred in Russia and in many other companies, such as the Royal Ballet.

From the moment he came on stage he was the Prince all eyes focused on even when not given anything to do. The sadness of his Act I solo was palpable and he proved an attentive partner to Alina Cojocaru’s Odette. For various reasons the chemistry between them didn’t entirely become evident until Act IV but he was very appealing in the way he constantly reached out to her unwilling to let her out of his grasp. Of course he came into his own with the pantherine and bravura leaps and spins in Act III and relished this as if he had been let off a leash. Regardless, he never seemed to be ‘showing off’ and admirably stayed in character throughout the performance. I hope ENB might think of persuading him to return in Giselle as he would excel in this too.

I missed Cojocaru in Milton Keynes because she decamped to Russia to dance there instead. There was a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ during Deane’s interpolated prologue as her foot got briefly caught in the flapping of Rothbart’s extravagantly large wings and I hope there were no consequences of this as she never seemed to be at her best. It was possibly that she did not have a strong enough personality to match Vasiliev and Tamara Rojo would have been a better partner for him – though I suspect she was trying to avoid any potential Nureyev/Fonteyn comparisons. Cojocaru’s solos were often taken very slowly and there was some other hesitancy now and again. Nevertheless, it was all very accomplished and she embodied Odette’s sadness and plight with some fey, limpid and lyrical dancing. Though she danced Odile well of course, I never believed in her as a womanly seductress and she merely seemed a flirty teenager. In the last act, reunited with Vasiliev’s Siegfried, she came into her own and together the emotion of their ultimate sacrifice was all-too-believably human.

The production seemed rather cramped at Milton Keynes and benefitted from the wide open spaces of the London Coliseum stage. ENB mostly danced with spontaneity and polished assurance, with only the national dances lacking the brio evident elsewhere. Cesar Corrales debuted impressively in the Pas de Trois and during all their appearances the swans majestically moved as one flock. Jia Zhang and the always eye-catching Ksenia Ovsyanick excelled as the lead swans, as well as, when they reappeared as two of the six princesses in Act III. The four cygnets (Crystal Costa, Senri Kou, Katja Khaniukova and Anjuli Hudson) were well-drilled and very appealing. On this occasion Essex-born James Streeter appeared to overdo the flapping of his cape-like wings somewhat as a two-dimensional pantomime villain, Rothbart … but there is not much else he could realistically do I suppose.

Gavin Sutherland and his orchestra – recently deservedly renamed as the English National Ballet Philharmonic – were their usual accomplished selves and the music was up to the very high standards they usually achieve. Once again – as I have also previously written – this Swan Lake will not disappoint whether you are a veteran ballet-goer or are experiencing something like this for the first time.  And there are still many great pairings – including Vasiliev and Cojocaru – to be seen before the performances end on 18th January, so do go if you can.

Jim Pritchard

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