United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake: Dancers of English National Ballet and English National Ballet Philharmonic / Gavin Sutherland (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.6.2016. (JPr)
Constantine Allen (Prince Siegfried)
Laurretta Summerscales (Odette/Odile)
Junor Souza (Rothbart)
Choreography: Derek Deane
Design: Peter Farmer
Lighting: Howard Harrison
Although this in-the-round production of Swan Lake has now been seen in the UK and overseas by over half a million people I came to it rather late. The first I knew about such a ballet performance like this was from BBC 4’s March 2011 fly-on-the-wall documentary about the English National Ballet called Agony & Ecstasy. The first episode focused on rehearsals for Swan Lake being put on the previous summer at the Royal Albert Hall. It is probably now just a fascinating historical look behind the scenes at the company celebrating its 60th anniversary but also going through hard times. Fast forward to 2016 and although finance may still be an issue – it was ever just – the reputation of English National Ballet can never have been higher. This is due to a lot of hard work by many, but especially because of the inspired leadership of their visionary artistic director, Tamara Rojo. (Her own documentary of a couple of years ago Good Swan, Bad Swan could be viewed as something of a riposte to the less-than-flattering Agony & Ecstasy. It has recently been repeated on BBC 4 and of course will be available for a little while on iPlayer.)
It is a few years since I have seen this in-the-round Swan Lake and it still takes a little time to get used to the lack of scenery from the version seen at the London Coliseum (review) and elsewhere that has chocolate box-like set designs from Peter Farmer who is also responsible for what little we see at the Royal Albert Hall. What atmosphere there is comes from Howard Harrison‘s lighting which is surprising subtle for such a big performance space, but your appreciation of that may depend on where you sit. I was face on and reasonably high up, there was often a very impressive dappling effect on the floor, and when there was a huge ‘lake’ of billowing dry ice for the moonlit lakeside scenes of Act II and IV it was ‘otherworldly’ and very magical. Otherwise there is no great sense of a castle courtyard for Act I (an expanded Prologue) and only a couple of throne chairs, a few drapes and some chandeliers is all we get for the Act III Great Hall setting.
With the orchestra in its normal place spread below the Grand Organ – even if rather higher up than we usually see it – there is a huge area that needs to be filled with dancers and movement. Truth-be-told this Swan Lake never starts very well: in Derek Deane’s ‘other’ version he shows us the evil sorcerer, Rothbart, bewitching a princess and turning her into a swan, a symbol of beauty and purity. In the ‘theatre’ it always seems superfluous but with an audience containing many clearly new to Swan Lake, telling more of the backstory would clearly have been useful. Here we go straight into Prince Siegfried’s birthday celebrations and the townsfolk and the ladies and gentlemen of the court enter down the steps through the audience and often just past my left shoulder! If they are not enough, there are tumblers and jugglers and for most of this over-populated Act I Prince Siegfried seems a very marginalised character. I cannot understand how since this Swan Lake was first put on that it was never appreciated how this all goes on far too long, even with the expanded Pas de Douze and the exuberant contribution of the Tring Park School young dancers. Prince Siegfried enters, leaps three times and then does nothing for 30 minutes except interact with those he encounters. Finally, not happy at having been told by his mother he must find a wife he gets to dance a melancholic adagio solo. If this is not the one made famous by Rudolf Nureyev (who is not credited) then it is a very creditable pastiche of it. This is the first real sense of drama that we get from this version and the tall and lean Constantine Allen, guesting with company and making his debut, displayed exquisite control and a great depth of emotion. Elsewhere in this Act he played the haughty Prince believably well, even though he did not seem as distracted as some do.
The young children at this Saturday afternoon matinee were getting a little restless and – like me – were wanting to see the lake and the 60 swans we were promised. When they all appear during Act II everything takes off as Junor Souza – making his debut as 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’. 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 traditional ballet mime I can imagine that at the top of the Royal Albert Hall some of this story-telling during the more intimate moments might get a bit lost but the audience could still relish the spectacle of the well-drilled unanimity of the swans. Laurretta Summerscales has had a meteoric rise through the ranks of the English National Ballet and in 2013 made her debut as Odette when she was an Artist but is now a Principal. She is a wonderfully languid dancer with suitably fluid movement of arms and wrists that hints at wings. There was a genuine frisson when she caught sight of Allen’s Siegfried for the first time and I felt genuine chemistry between the two of them although the disparity in their heights brought a fleeting awkwardness to some of the more intricate partnered passages.
Act III involved the usual series of supposed international dances, and Anjuli Hudson and Vitor Menezes caught the eye with a high-octane Neapolitan Dance. Then came the familiar Black Swan pas de deux for Siegfried and Odile. Rothbart and his imposter daughter make their entrance along with two tumbling bald-headed, gargoyle-like hangers-on. I reflected once again with Deane’s Swan Lake 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 and why he sits next to the Queen during the festivities. I thought Laurretta Summerscales’s conniving, seductive grin which radiated throughout the barn-like Royal Albert Hall revealed everything we needed to know about Odile. Despite a sense of choreographic over-inflation to the way they had to move around, Allen and Summerscales gave a masterclass of impeccable technique and great technical assurance as their pas de deux brought out the best in both of them. Allen was all refined leaps and exquisite soft landings and Summerscales’s fouettés were suitably show-stopping even if the need to turn to all sides of the auditorium whilst otherwise spinning added to the balletic – and somewhat gymnastic – challenge.
Siegfried wants to marry Odile but soon realises he has been duped and has betrayed Odette. The emotional heart of story lies in Act IV as he rushes to the lake to beg her forgiveness. The battle between good and evil reaches its conclusion as they both unite to defeat Rothbart who in a true coup de théâtre flaps his last as he disappears through the floor. Even though it remains a little unclear at the end that all the swan-maidens are released from his enslavement and Siegfried and Odette can live happily ever after, I realised that the story had finally taken its grip on me and I was rooting for them all. Once again all credit here to the ENB’s captivating swans with their beautifully soft arms, immaculate timing and precise footwork. This totally justified the apparent 150+ hours of rehearsal time for this current run of performances.
Once again I was mightily impressed by what I heard from the English National Ballet Philharmonic under their music director Gavin Sutherland. He never indulged his dancers inordinately and raced through the score. The orchestral sound does not have the nuance it would in a normal theatre and as amplified here sounded like what you hear during a cinema transmission. Nevertheless, there was plenty of evidence of ENB’s current high musical standards and a particular highlight was the deeply romantic sounds of the cello and violin during the Act II pas de deux.
This Swan Lake is traditional, classical, true and timeless and catch it if you can – or just go and see anything by English National Ballet, I’m sure you’ll never be disappointed.
For more about English National Ballet visit http://www.ballet.org.uk/.