English National Ballet’s Swan Lake Emerges Memorably from the Mists

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake: Dancers of English National Ballet and English National Ballet Philharmonic / Gavin Sutherland (conductor), London Coliseum, 3.1.2019. (JPr)

Jurgita Dronina (Odile) & Isaac Hernández (Siegfried) © Laurent Liotardo

Principal Cast:
Jurgita Dronina – Odette/Odile
Isaac Hernández – Prince Siegfried
James Streeter – Rothbart

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

I always have a great affection for Swan Lake and it is very welcome that English National Ballet bring Derek Deane’s 2000 production back to the London Coliseum for a New Year season especially after the mishmash that is the Royal Ballet’s new version (review click here). It is a reminder of the challenge English National Ballet now presents to those ‘up the road’ for the position of Britain’s premier ballet company. This is unquestionable particularly when everything is nearly perfect as it was here: the synthesis of the fairy tale-like story, Tchaikovsky’s hauntingly beautiful score and traditional choreography made it a compelling experience and, ultimately, an extremely emotional one. Part of my attraction to Swan Lake is that I am attracted to it because ‘The story behind why Tchaikovsky composed Swan Lake’ isn’t the ‘mystery to scholars’ that English National Ballet Philharmonic’s wonderful music director, Gavin Sutherland, suggests in his rehashed programme essay. It probably had much to do with the composer’s admiration for Richard Wagner because the swan motif and the idea of redemption through love originates in Lohengrin, an opera Tchaikovsky is known to have admired very much. Also the hero’s name is Siegfried and Tchaikovsky attended the 1876 premiere of the Ring cycle, and need I write more?

I have written before how my earliest Swan Lakes were mainly with Rudolf Nureyev as Prince Siegfried in the 1970s and 80s. Before then when he choreographed the complete work at the Vienna Opera House in 1964, he typically fleshed out the role of the Prince and, above all, developed the character’s psychology, using fantasies which trigger a downward spiral as the Prince chases the illusion of a woman/swan. In later years I feel privileged to have seen Nureyev dance this in Vienna, and cumulatively with each subsequent performance of Swan Lake I go to, comparisons are inevitable. 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 splendid leadership – is becoming a company that seldom disappoints and Derek Deane’s transfigurative ending was as affecting as I would expect from an even more dramatically-engaging production. I was enraptured and again in awe the remarkable depth of talent that the company now has at its disposal. The word that most came to mind watching the dancing was ‘exquisite’; it was so consummately natural and expressive and not as intellectual and technical as their Royal Ballet counterparts are from time to time.

Peter Farmer’s signature chocolate box-like set designs (familiar from his previous work, particularly for Sir Peter Wright) have a hint of Caspar David Friedrich and, thanks to Howard Harrison’s atmospheric lighting, always works especially well for the lakeside scenes of Act II and IV and reasonably so for the palace courtyard and interior needed for Acts I and III. I appreciated Derek Deane’s scene-setting more than I had before, as the evil sorcerer Rothbart bewitches a princess and turns her into a swan. Then having illuminated this part of the story that is often ignored, Prince Siegfried comes into his birthday celebrations and – for me – does very little for much too long. Regardless it was good to see how not one of the dancers – including Siegfried himself – framing the action ever ‘switched off’ for a single moment. The English National Ballet Philharmonic were on top form throughout evening with many virtuosic solo contributions and – partly due to Gavin Sutherland’s fast tempo  – the Pas de Trois (Julia Conway, Alison McWhinney and Daniel McCormick), Pas de Douze and Polonaise were charming and not as interminable as they can sometimes be. (The talented Precious Adams, ENB’s poster-girl, was underused at this first performance only appearing here in the Act I ensemble, as well as, later as a Princess and with no Odette/Odile in this current residency.) Thankfully, Act I closes with the variation for Siegfried created for Nureyev in the 1960s and often included since then in other versions of Swan Lake. Isaac Hernández, ENB’s leading male dancer, was absorbingly introspective and melancholic and this was the first indication this would be a special evening.

Act II is basically traditional: Siegfried meets Odette and through mime she reveals that she is the Queen of the Swans 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. Spellbound by her beauty Siegfried makes that vow. Jurgita Dronina was a revelation to me as Odette and only the most hard-hearted would fail to be captivated by this Swan Queen’s plight. She had the suitably soft swan arms which – together with her head movements and unsmiling face – clearly identified her as otherworldly. Hernández partnered her impeccably here and throughout the rest of the ballet. The ‘half-man, half-bird’ Rothbart looks exactly that and does no genuine dancing and just rushes around waving his cape-like wings. James Streeter seems a permanent fixture in this role and is surprisingly sinister in his fleeting appearances on stage, and thankfully not the one-dimensional pantomime villain he might appear.

In Act II as Dronina goes over to the dark side as Odile and her flashing eyes and come-hither gestures entrance the smitten Siegfried. She obviously relished the bravura 32 fouettés en tournant which everyone is waiting for. Hernández excelled with his eye-catching elevation, speed and soft landings. Earlier in the act, Crystal Costa and Barry Drummond were jovial and flashy in the Neapolitan Dance with tambourines being bashed for all they were worth.

Deane’s staging does not demand much acting from Siegfried; I relished the apparent chemistry Hernández had with Dronina and he did just enough to make his character live. This is never seen better than when he almost burns up the stage, as he hurries in to find Odette in Act IV, showing his desperation to right the grievous wrong he has done her. Indeed Deane’s Swan Lake benefits from one of the better interpretations there are of the final act and found ENB’s corps de ballet on particularly impressive form. I frequently compliment the swans for their impeccable synchronicity, delicate arms and pin sharp feet and in doing so again can remark how – like everyone else moving on the vast London Coliseum stage – they were admirably quiet. The opening of this Act IV – as the swans emerge from the mist on the moonlit lake – is one of the most magical things you will see in any ballet production. (Spoiler alert!) this Swan Lake has an ending that is both ‘tragic’ and ‘uplifting’, as although the two lovers commit suicide, Rothbart is defeated by Siegfried and Odette’s love and the enchanted swans left behind are set free.

This Swan Lake will not disappoint, whether you are a veteran ballet-goer or are experiencing the ballet for the first time as many evidently were at this first night from what I heard around me.

Jim Pritchard

For details of all English National Ballet’s forthcoming performances click here.

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