Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball lead an enjoyable revival of Liam Scarlett’s flawed Swan Lake

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake: Dancers of The Royal Ballet and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Martin Georgiev (conductor). Directed for the screen by Peter Jones and relayed to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 24.4.2024. (JPr)

Yasmine Naghdi (Odette) and Matthew Ball (Prince Siegfried) © Andrej Uspensksi

Director of The Royal Ballet, Kevin O’Hare, wanted a new Swan Lake ‘for this generation of dancers and also for the public as well’ to replace Sir Anthony Dowell’s previous 1987 production which was not universally popular I believe. Given the responsibility of a new version of this – as Dame Darcey Bussell’s introduction claimed – ‘quintessential classic’ was Liam Scarlett who in 2018 (when it was first put on) was artist in residence with The Royal Ballet. Sadly, well-publicised events overlook the young choreographer and Scarlett died at only 35 in 2021. This revival – the third according to O’Hare – was overseen on behalf of his estate by Laura Morera, former principal dancer with The Royal Ballet and someone who had worked closely with Scarlett.

We learnt in 2018 from Scarlett how his remit seems to have been two-fold: firstly, to make the characters ‘real’ and ‘the fairy-tale world we go into believable’ and also give the swans their tutus back, thereby replacing the long skirts of the previous Swan Lake which had hidden the dancers’ legs. According to O’Hare, Scarlett ‘took the big classical pas de deuxs and big corps de ballet numbers, like the swans in Act II, and kept them in their entirety. Then he brought his own style to the dances in Act I, the character dances in Act III and Act IV is completely his choreography. But he was such a lover of classicism, and of The Royal Ballet, that it fits us like a glove.’ (Actually, Isabella Gasparini and Leo Dixon’s spirited Act III Neapolitan dance is by Sir Frederick Ashton and indeed looks as if it is from an entirely different staging.)

Scarlett and his designer John Macfarlane were blessed with an extraordinary amount of money to spend on their Swan Lake with its 120 dancing and acting roles; this season there are numerous casts across a three-month run of performances and twelve different combinations of pairing in the two main roles and – we were told by Costume Manager Caroline McCall – approximately 450 costumes involved.

I have written before how any reasonably successful Swan Lake needs little more than Tchaikovsky, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 steps, a royal court, a moonlit lakeside and some swans. In this regard Scarlett succeeds, though he otherwise – for me – does little to bring the ballet into the twenty-first century. With Scarlett’s premature death I suspect this Swan Lake will remain one of his lasting legacies and his concept and choreography will remain sacrosanct until this Swan Lake is, in turn, replaced. However, I still find it dramatically inert, the storytelling somewhat muddled and the mise-en-scène could be from any time in the last century. New technologies used in opera in recent years, such as sets and images which are projected, as well as, video, does need to be embraced soon by ballet. In Scarlett’s Swan Lake the audience can applaud the money spent on John Macfarlane’s red and gold Act III set and his lavish costumes for the guests at the royal ball, but when we are by the lakeside in Acts II and IV all we see is a dingy backcloth and the suggestion of a jagged black rock.

Scarlett starts with a prologue where Odette is transformed from princess to swan by the rather creepy Von Rothbart. Thomas Whitehead (Von Rothbart in this performance) suggested how, for him, his character ‘is a vampire, like he’s Nosferatu, he never dies and so he is just marauding through time, kingdom grabbing’. Well it’s a thought, but every time I see Scarlett’s Swan Lake I have no greater idea who Von Rothbart is supposed to be. All I can add is that with all the skulking around his alter ego does at the palace – where he seems to strike fear into everyone as a Chancellor-like figure in charge of the military – I am reminded of Rasputin’s maligned influence on the Romanovs. Later this Von Rothbart shows his hand as he wrestles the crown from the Queen’s head as the court is in disarray at the end of Act III.

After Scarlett’s prologue, for Act I we are outside the palace with a prominent pine tree and a backdrop strongly redolent of Caspar David Friedrich. This seems fin de siècle Germany and as the ballet progresses, I also began to think I was seeing Swan Lake meets Mayerling with Prince Siegfried as the unhappy and conflicted Rudolf. Siegfried and his friend Benno get new solos; though even then Siegfried still never dances as much as he could. The Act I pas de trois is recast for Benno and Siegfried’s sisters, and they will dance again in Act III; in fact, Scarlett for long stretches of his Swan Lake seems more interested in Benno than Siegfried.

One of Scarlett’s better ideas is to link Acts I and II as the morose Siegfried seems transported to the lake having got his father’s crossbow as a birthday present. Unfortunately, having several black swans appear at the moment of the queen’s downfall and Von Rothbart’s gloating in Act III meant an interval was now required – for the swans to change their costumes? – before the final act. This was a wonderful coup de théâtre, but it would have been better to repeat the transition between acts that had happened earlier.

Despite reinstating music which was cut from Dowell’s Swan Lake, the downbeat ending remains rather undercooked as Von Rothbart succumbs too easily because Odette chooses to jump into the lake and drown herself. This involved her climbing that rock at the back but – even on a huge cinema screen – her martyrdom made little impact. The defeated Von Rothbart should have revealed his ‘other self’ to Siegfried before he too falls to his death in the lake. The final image we are left with is Siegfried forlornly cradling Odette’s body (as her spirit rises above the stage), whilst the music – with the orchestra under Martin Georgiev really excelling here – actually suggests redemption and the triumph of good over evil. The more familiar culmination of both dying together and ultimately being united beyond the grave would be the better ending.

Yasmine Naghdi (Odette) and Matthew Ball (Prince Siegfried) © Andrej Uspensksi

There was little evidence from Peter Jones’s closeup camerawork that the excellent corps de ballet was about halfway through a long run of performances; the swans seem to have been rehearsed very well and it is not the dancers fault that some of Scarlett’s new Act I choreography is so frantic that they are scurrying here and there often playing catch-up. There is too much from Benno and Siegfried’s two sisters: the very springy, smiley Joonhyuk Jun revelled in the dancing he had to do as the prince’s friend but there was little sense of him creating a real character onstage, whilst both Leticia Dias and Annette Buvoli danced winsomely. Thomas Whitehead as Von Rothbart did the best with what Scarlett gives him but – as hinted above – this isn’t much; mainly just frowning or flapping his wings and so despite him often being onstage he was – perversely – a peripheral figure.

Magnus Johnston’s evocative violin drew us into the Act I white pas de deux and Yasmine Naghdi’s mime as Odette was sublime and crystal clear with no words needed as she told the confused Siegfried about Von Rothbart’s curse. Naghdi’s dancing was luminous with fluid arms, upper body extensions and quivering footwork expressing her sadness and yearning for the release from her curse. Naghdi and the orchestra (sounding superb through the cinema loudspeakers) echoed each other in an almost mesmerising blend of movement and Tchaikovsky’s music. Later in Act IV, how Naghdi portrayed Odette’s realisation of her only choice of action would not fail to break even the hardest of hearts. She was equally good as the seductive temptress Odile, with her technically infamous fouettés being spot-on (!) and apparently – according to Dame Darcey – included three triples in a row.

Naghdi’s duets with Matthew Ball’s Siegfried looked effortless – even in closeup – and together they enthrallingly revealed all the emotions of love, temptation, deceit, betrayal, sacrifice and loss in their story. I repeat, Ball now appears more of a Russian dancer than The Royal Ballet’s Vadim Muntagirov. Looking disconcertingly like a young Prince William, Ball showed in his every expression how he was experiencing love for the first time with Odette. Earlier he had been the epitome of someone whose royal duties and the need to make a suitable match weighed heavily on his young shoulders. Scarlett really does seem to have Siegfried on the sidelines too much, some entrechat sixes and a moody solo in Act I and his exquisite partnering in Act II. Ball appeared to be let off the leash in Act III with his pantherine movement and bravura leaps and spins, slightly untidy but exhilarating, nonetheless. There was no sense he wanted to ‘show-off’ and Ball admirably stayed in character throughout the performance and so must be one of the better actors The Royal Ballet currently has amongst its male dancers.

My first Swan Lake at Covent Garden was seeing Monica Mason and Rudolf Nureyev dance in 1977 and this performance was more enjoyable than many I have seen since then.

Jim Pritchard

Principal Cast:
Odette/Odile – Yasmine Naghdi
Prince Siegfried – Matthew Ball
The Queen – Christina Arestis
Von Rothbart – Thomas Whitehead
Benno – Joonhyuk Jun
Prince Siegfried’s Younger Sisters – Leticia Dias, Annette Buvoli

Choreography – Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Additional Choreography – Liam Scarlett and Frederick Ashton (Act III Neapolitan dance)
Production – Liam Scarlett
Designer – John Macfarlane
Lighting designer – David Finn
Staging – Gary Avis, Laura Morera, Samantha Raine
Artistic Supervisor for the Scarlett Estate – Laura Morera

2 thoughts on “Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball lead an enjoyable revival of Liam Scarlett’s flawed <i>Swan Lake</i>”

  1. I note your comment re the ending, but the original scenario is specific:

    ‘One after another the waves roll over the Prince and Odette, and soon they disappear beneath the water. The storm subsides with only a faint rumbling of water. The moon’s pale rays pierce through the scattered clouds and on the now calm lake appears a flock of white swans.’

    No triumph of good over evil there…

    • Thanks James, Tchaikovsky may have been an ambivalent Wagnerian but Swan Lake was composed around 1876 when he attended the first Bayreuth Ring. Siegfried and a swan in the ballet is more than a coincidence to me … The transcendent B major ending is probably Wagnerian and signals the triumph over fate/evil/maybe even, death. So either they should both die (as I hinted at) and be transfigured or even both survive.


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