Swan Lake season begins here. Derek Deane’s creation for English National Ballet transfers from the truly cavernous arena of Royal Albert Hall into the smaller (though with a capacity of 2.5 thousand people still the largest theatre in London!) venue of the Coliseum. It largely succeeds.
Present are the requisite phalanxes of Swans in their serried lines and happy geometries.
Present, is the story of a girl transformed into a swan, courted then ‘cheated on’ by a prince. Present too, the divertissements, an evil magician, and dry ice by the industrial sized bucket-load. Present too, the star draw of Alina Cojocaru and Ivan Vasiliev. Absent though, was the latter’s appeal – until very late in the piece – and thus absent, a measure of the force and power of this fairytale when it is at its best. More on this later.
To proceed in rough running order: in the Pas de Trois, lively solos from all. Cesar Corrales gracile in his movement and finding wonderful height in his jetés, he got a loud ‘bravo!’ from a man in the audience. (The only bravo or brava of the afternoon.)
In the same section, Lauretta Summerscales had noticeably quick and expressive hands, and was thoroughly charming to watch. As a unit, with Alison McWhinney completing the team, good. The larger Pas de Douze and Polonaise achieved lovely geometry and with good ensemble timing of arms and attitude, there was lots here to charm the eye.
James Streeter gave us a dynamic Rothbart, not exactly a given even dancing the moves he must work with (I hesitate to call it choreography – it is more running around very fast and flapping his gigantic cape-cum-wings at everything and just being a general meanie). Here though a little too much flapping, especially on the promenentary which seems to be his most comfortable Flapping Spot. From here he announces his entrance. From here he menaces the swans who earlier have serenely denied him their princess. Such was the amount of running that at his demise in Act 3, he seems merely to have rather messily run out of puff. Lots of flapping doesn’t a Rothbart make (though by ‘eck, credit where its due: those wings must be heavy.)
Those same swans were a good ensemble, well drilled and with good lines, collectively and individually. Synchronisation of time was well achieved, uniformity of position gratifying to see. The cygnets (Crystal Costa, Senri Kou, Katja Khaniukova, Anjuli Hudson) were largely excellent in their brief moment in the spotlight, but heads were a little inconsistent across the group. (A very minor point). In the White Acts my eye was drawn to Ksenia Ovsyanick‘s Lead Swan. I gather she is to shortly retire. I am sure many wish her well, and I too.
(As an aside Pageboy who presents the crossbow to our Prince was played by Taliesin Strange-Carrington. Surely young Master Strange-Carrington has the best name in England.)
On then to our Prince Siegfried, danced by Ivan Vasiliev. He was, and I am unsure how to put this, a little vacant. His expression very much ‘dude where’s my swan’ through most of the drama. (I truly thought he looked more like a surfer dude than a prince set to inherit a kingdom.) In the second interval I overheard a lady talking with a friend. She said Vasiliev was more measured than charismatic. ‘Not enough bravado’ she said. I am not sure the role here quite calls for bravado, but it does indeed call for charisma, and for a dancer to project it out into an auditorium. ‘Perhaps he is best in a role he can get his teeth into’ she said. Indeed, perhaps but one would hope that the role of Prince Siegfried offers some meat for some teeth! Would that he had teeth at all or displayed them more keenly from the start. There was no ardour in kissing Odette’s hand, scant astonishment (as I have seen from some dancers) when he meets her. That is not to say there was a sucking void where Siegfried should have been, but only that Mr Vasiliev ‘could do better’.
Only in Act 3 did he seem to come alive, and only in his solo in the Grand Pas De Deux of Act 3 did he seem to find his ease. During the same solo, the content largely following the letter of Petipa (or Petipa as his steps have come down to us) I did in fact exclaim a ‘wow‘ under my breath. There was the Vasiliev I had heard about. It was just a shame that at times his acting didn’t match the dancing. I have no qualms about how he looks (some think him too short) but I do have qualms with how a dancer responds to the pull of his feelings, the imploring of Odette, the wiles of Odile, the demands of his mother. It was almost as if Mr Vasiliev was a little unsure how to deal with the mystical vision of loveliness that was Alina Cojocaru’s Odette.
Instead I think he might have picked up in Act 3 due to Ms Cojocaru’s dazzling turn as Odile. Perhaps some of his engagement was genuine. She was beguiling in her seduction, perverse in her aping of Odette’s ethereal waftings. Thirty-two Fouettés came and went in a storm of applause (but not from the couple next to me, at all, in fact from them none throughout) here were turns in the air from Vasiliev, flashes of lightning from Howard Harrison’s lighting, Rothbart running around, Odile triumphant, and here was Siegfried’s anguish, well played against Jane Howarth‘s Queen – who took the time to admonish her son as well as console him. Act 3 definitely picked up the pace.
The national dance divertissements therein were fun, but I am sorry to report that I am not a fan of the tambourine smacking onstage in the Neapolitan Dance, and I apologise to the creator, Frederick Ashton for not enjoying it. That is not to say the dancing from Crystal Costa and Fernando Bufala was at fault. Far from it! They both clearly enjoyed their lively dance.
I was however a fan of whoever was smacking the tambourine in the pit, this talented chap* playing castanets too. An excellent asset to the orchestra who under conductor Gavin Sutherland gave an excellent account of the score.
And as for Alina Cojocaru I can only join the chorus of approval singing her praises. As Odette she is sublime. Frail and diaphanous, the beating of her wings quick like a fluttering heart. Her reaction to Siegfried in the finale was astonishing, the more so for having her back to the audience. There was writ pain, and strength of her immanent despairing soul, there too denial, abjuration from temptation. And that with her back to us. Fronting, her face is an expressive instrument of great power and subtlety, which reaches right to the back of the hall. Here, heartfelt glances and looks – played to Vasiliev’s slightly more monotonal expression. Gracenotes trickled from her hands and fingers, her footwork pellucid, her balances without a single wobble or moment of uncertainty. A true delight throughout.
Only one slight hiccough: from an ending I didn’t quite understand at the time. Siegfried resolves to die (in fact, well acted by Vasiliev here) and Odette too. Siegfried’s death looked like he was merely running up a ramp. Regardless, both ascend into a twilight empyrean (as they often do) yet here they do so on a very cronky and jerky pneumatic lift. One saw how it juddered into life as they juddered out of it. An unpleasing breaking of illusion.
Even so, all were happy. Brief curtain calls, applause, a bouquet for Ms Cojocaru, from which she drew a flower for Mr Vasiliev and Mr Sutherland. Overheard on the way out a babel of voices: “that was AMAZING,” said one “lovely,” another. Descending into the night down from the balcony. The kid in front of me had been jiggling in her seat to the music. A child was humming the main Swan theme. Hububb and into the London ruck (more Main theme, this time whistled in the street) and me humming the grand mazurka as I walked to my stations stop. Despite any reservations, we were entertained. A job well done.
Overall, 8/10. With a better Siegfried, it would have been more!
Ballet snark this afternoon was briefly astronomical.
With kids I don’t mind a bit of their squirming or seat kicking. They are young. But bad behaviour from adults/young adults is rude. The guy two seats over with his girlfriend to my immediate right pulled out his phone during the first ten minutes. “Maybe he is turning it off” I thought. Then in Corrales solo he pulled it out again. This I would not tolerate, otherwise he would be at it all night. I reached across and attempted to flip it over, whereupon it was put away. So too the girl to his left took out her phone at the moment of highest tension in act 4. Yes, there’s nothing I like more than to see the insistent glow of a phone light up ten feet in radius at the climax of a show. It breaks the spell, it breaks my concentration. It distracts me and it can even actually anger me. It is disrespectful. If you get bored that easily, and you have the attention span of a flea and can’t live without checking your phone every ten minutes then please, do us a favour and stay home. Young adults of the world, you are giving yourselves a bad name. There was talking over the music before the curtain rose. Shushing too, gratifyingly. There was a moment of horrible coughing during act 1’s PDD. It honestly sounded like someone choking and that they needed medical aid. I am reminded of the time when a guy with the most filthy, protracted phlegm-y cough was in front of me at ROH during Tosca. I knew that he would cough during my favourite bit (e lucevan le stelle) and guess what, he did.
*FOOTNOTE As an aside, I dunno about you but an evil looking dude in a scary cape with a retinue of two extremely cadaverous looking bleached-skullfaced bodyguards wouldn’t be allowed within fifty leagues of my castle let alone into my banquet hall, and as guest of honour no less. Nevertheless Rothbart blitzes in with this very unpleasant pair of chaps and no one bats an eyelid. He even sits right next to the Queen with those two evil minions skulking at his feet. What’s the world coming to?
*I am guessing that the castanet and tambourine Man was either
Kevin Nutty (Section Principal) or
Special mention goes to Gareth Hulse for his singing oboe in the main “theme” of the work. Bravi tutti.