Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Enter Swan, with goblins... can't end well, you think. I can't tell you how many versions of Swan Lake I've seen, some with endings that had me in tears and once, an unfortunate one that made me laugh. In case you haven't seen Derek Deane's version for English National Ballet, I won't tell you how it ends, but I do want to say a little more about this production.

This version begins with a prologue showing how Rothbart first captured Odette, which perhaps truncates the event rather too severely – one critic suggested that it implied she has only been a swan since lunchtime. On the whole I thought this worked – not every small child (or even older person) in the audience can be assumed to be entirely familiar with the story, though there is a good deal of snobbery around ballet which expects that they should be. Act I opens on the palace courtyard, where preparations are in hand for the Prince's birthday, and event somewhat marred by his mother's insistence that it's time he settled down. As Siegfried, Arionel Vargas looked quite appalled and despairing at this notion, in contrast to his boyish enthusiasm at her birthday gift of a crossbow. Charitably, I think we will assume that he is a very young Prince. The lack, in this production, of his friend Benno, perhaps points up this apparent youthfulness too far; he is an unfailingly serious young man, his only companion his elderly tutor. The highlight of this Act is the Pas de quatre, choreographed by Frederick Ashton, with some lively dancing; this is followed by a Polonaise, which I always enjoy, since I have a particular interest in the character dances within classical ballet.

Act II, at the Lakeside, was very pretty. From my seat in the Balcony (I like to watch from a height) the patterns were a delight, and the dancing from the corps de ballet was precise and graceful. Odette (Sarah McIlroy), when she appeared, had lovely line but was a little diffident for my liking, though her dancing was expressive. Her re-appearance as Odile in Act III lacked fire and strength and, therefore, contrast with Odette, but these were Principal dancers, rather than Senior Principals, and one expects a little less. I'm also aware of expecting an unrealistically high standard having, in the past, seen some notable dancers in the role. The character dances in Act III were pleasing, the costumes (by Peter Farmer) attractive if a trifle predictable. I longed for the lavish opulence of Philip Prowse's costumes for Birmingham Royal Ballet some years ago, which provided all the spectacle that this most famous of ballets deserves. The exceptions were Rothbart's costumes, which conveyed a wonderfully unwholesome oily quality to the feather, and Odile's black and bronze tutu, which matched her father's shot bronze cloak. Very nice.

The dry ice in Act IV, back at the lake, was on the heavy side, and the final pas de deux between the Prince and Odette, pretty though it was, failed to provoke the necessary lump to the throat. The final tableau, however, of serried ranks of swans in the "dying swan" position made famous by Pavlova, was enchanting, and did much to redeem any earlier failings.


  1. As a teenager I used to go to the ballet a lot, but haven't been for years, which living in Birmingham is really a rather terrible confession. However, I can say that the only time I saw Swan Lake it was with Fonteyn and Nureyev so perhaps my mind has simply decided that anything after that would be an anti-climax.

  2. I've never seen Swan Lake performed live, only on film. One day I should make it a point of seeing it in person.

  3. TT, I must say I envy you living somewhere where ballet can be seen so easily - I agree hard to live up to Fonteyn and Nureyev, but it doesn't have to be Swan Lake!

    Stefanie, I like watching ballet live, but the sound of feet hitting the stage can rather destroy the illusion of etherealness; you have to get using to tuning it out.