tue 23/07/2024

Swan Lake, English National Ballet, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Swan Lake, English National Ballet, Royal Albert Hall

Swan Lake, English National Ballet, Royal Albert Hall

In-the-round means grids and drills: only superhuman performances can rescue the maths

I was there: 60 white-feathered girls in precision-tooled lines in Derek Deane's arena Swan LakeImages English National Ballet

So much is wrong with Derek Deane’s arena Swan Lake, as if he read a poem and rewrote it as a press release. If you want big fat images of swans, 60 white-feathered girls in precision-tooled lines, this is for you. Take your photos on your phone, take them home and say, “I was there.” If you want to feel the private passion of the story, surrender to the music and the peculiar fantasy, to examine your own motivations and ability to choose love, forget this - go elsewhere.

I've attended this 16-year-old production again and again, faithfully searching every time to find what others effusively admire in it. I still can’t find it. It remains to me a paradox that Deane, who created a cherishable theatre staging of Swan Lake at the same time he was conceiving this bloated arena version, could have jugggled two sides of his imagination so opposite, the believing theatre director and the bombastic sergeant-major.

Anyway. This is the production with five dozen swans. It’s about numbers, geometry and soulless mechanics. Everything must revolve to four sides, so that any section of the Albert Hall’s unwieldy auditorium is favoured with a front view 20-25 percent of the time. This is like taking a Van Gogh painting and computerising it in 3D. Or bellowing an ode by Keats through a megaphone.

In this circular space there can be no asymmetry. What is uneven or human on a proscenium stage (where the ballet language was written to be seen) is turned - in this efficient kaleidoscope - into odd-times-four, so that trios become dozens (ie odd becomes even), two couples become eight couples (ie privacy becomes public). Every metaphor loses its power in the human drama. Most importantly, the music, intended to be played right in our brain, in front of the dance (ears before eyes), is distanced here as far away as possible, the orchestra planted at the very back of the stage, high over the scene, like aural wallpaper.

Bypass this catastrophe of a conception for so intimate and dream-soaked a fable as Swan Lake, and there is mild fun to be had occasionally. Act 1 opens with the amusement of tumblers and jugglers in among the villagers (one juggler last night doing his own thing working with the music): a numbingly sedate series of dances follows. The setting is more of an estate workers’ get-together than the prince’s cloistered, grand birthday - so it’s nice and PC for today, but then that robs the story of the prince’s reason to feel oppressed, bored, hemmed in, maddened, dissident, like you in your darker moments.

A glossy, seamless spectacle of masses of drilled swangirls under blue spotlights, an army as obedient and numb as the North Korean military

The swans’ act has been turned by Deane into a glossy, seamless spectacle of masses of drilled swangirls under blue spotlights, an army as obedient and numb as the North Korean military, in which there can be no surprise or individual vagary. It is cool, but not at all troubling. Odette, of course, must appear centrally, and strictly remain so. She can’t steal on from the side, or land on new ground, as she can in the usual staging - she must be revealed as the dead centre of concentric circles of swans, and when she sorrows, it must be at the front of a perfectly symmetrical grid of Odette-copies.

Swan Lake rehearsal rojo goldingOnly two spectacularly individual performances by the leads can hope to rescue this mechanically recovered blow-up of a gossamer dance-poem. Tamara Rojo returns to the double-role she performed for Deane when she was a young chit in 1999. Then, for a young dancer to show such command was thrilling. Now, for a mature ballerina, some vulnerability would be more exciting. Rojo used to do vulnerability wonderfully.

But one sympathises: Odette is the love fantasy of Siegfried, and to have as characterless a Siegfried as Matthew Golding would frustrate any actress attempting to find a character, so no wonder if Rojo tried too determinedly to stamp some kind of momentum on the key "white" encounter between man and bird. (Above, the couple pictured in rehearsal with the company at 3 Mills Studio)

Rojo’s Odile was simply sensational: all black velvet and diamonds, at ease, her awesome technique sheathed in seduction

Much changed, thank goodness, in Act 3, a truly brilliant “black” act where Golding’s lack of personality counted less, given his gloriously free, beautifully shaped dancing and soaring leaps. He is much more impressive as soloist than as partner, in which he looked clumsy. But perhaps it was nerves.

Rojo’s Odile was simply sensational: all black velvet and diamonds, at ease, her awesome technique sheathed in seduction, balancing and turning precisely on those uniquely curvaceous toes as if stepping purposefully into her lover's wounds. The crowd roared. They roared again at the end, for the way she rose with moving pathos to the finale, as Odette and Siegfried confront his unfaithfulness, fight off the menacing Rothbart, and apologise, forgive, and reaffirm their love. It's a fake "happy" ending, of course - but Tchaikovsky's music tells it like it is, that you can never forgive yourself, really.

James Streeter was great subversive fun as Rothbart, a flapping, hairy Eighties rockstar who comes from an underground that is certainly more enticing than the polite place on stage.

Deane's choreography manages the feat of being both big and beige: the national dances fall flat because the non-specific choreography gives nothing for ENB’s neat and tidy troops to do, when these rollicking musical numbers need to be felt deep down, the heels thumped down with appetite, and a willingness to abandon oneself to tribal affiliations. Good luck to any other casts thinking they can achieve sexual mystery or emotional subtlety in this soulless pageant.

  • English National Ballet dance their arena Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall, London, daily till 23 June

Find @ismeneb on Twitter

Watch Tamara Rojo rehearse and explain Swan Lake in the Royal Ballet production


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