This was my first visit to see Dowell’s Swan Lake, and I was not wholly impressed by the spectacle, nor by some of the choreographic choices, but the dancing was wonderful.
For the designs: I was struck by the curious idea of setting the piece in Tchaikovsky’s sort of time period (the 1880s, I am hesitantly guessing at) as for me, part of the ballet’s appeal is precisely because it is a fairy story, quite usually set in (loosely) medieval of at least fairytale storybook times. That’s not to say that fairy tales can’t happen in a modern era, see for example, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life etc., but only to suggest that certain things within that setting might not sit happily with the text of the piece. For example, if the gates of Siegfried’s palace had truly been guarded by blokes with crossbows, one imagines Revolution would have been tried long before 1905 or 1918. To have them with guns would also feel menacingly modern and anachronistic, an admission of brutality and an aesthetic of “police state” almost. To have them with crossbows removes the terror, but nullifies the believability of the setting. A small thing, really, but indicative of what to my mind, is a problem with the production overall.
Comparisons with Deane’s offering from a month ago live in the mind, and are inevitable, if a little unfair (each artistic offering should perhaps be assessed on its own merit). Generally, it feels like his is the superior product. It benefits chiefly from its classical referents (tutus for the swans, the storybook milieu) and from Deane’s cut-and-pasting of Ashton, Petipa and…Deane. Thus here, the Act 1 passed by happily enough (with a very wobbly maypole) but in my memory, at certain points in the Waltz for example, I seemed to recall lifts taking place, and a general tint of exuberance (I may be mis-remembering the lifts, but do recall exuberance!). In fact, for this whole Act, Deane’s offering seemed the stronger.
Musically, on occassion, things were just as wobbly as the maypole. Under Boris Gruzin’s baton, the overture seemed a little hesitant, sounding somehow etiolated and not quite as well-knit as I would have liked. It ended up eliding the dramatic statements and portents of its own themes. I really think it should declaim, or at least proclaim these main themes, as they set the tone for the whole work, but here the music came across as a bit too polite, and in phrasing quite odd at times. This, despite pungent brass (perhaps a little de trop here) which doesn’t implicate strings or woodwinds by association, it really just seems to indicate that all together the Orchestra weren’t as strong as they could have been. I really did think to myself “English National Ballet Philharmonic did this far better”*. Sorry guys and girls of the R.O.H.!
Gripes out of the way then, and onto the dancing. Quite some time ago I had booked to see Sarah Lamb, only to learn this week that she was indisposed. Her replacement was Marianela Núñez. Whilst I am sad that I will not get to see Miss Lamb, what consolation it is to see Miss Núñez as Odette/Odile. She is an artist in full command of her skills – which are manifest. Her astonishment at meeting Acosta’s prince was very well done, her coy glances and demurring looks could not fail to enchant him. When Gary Avis’ genuinely fantastic von Rothbart weaves his evil magicks and re-mesmerises Odette, Núñez’s eyes glaze over, stare out, and we feel her returning to swanform, as if a switch has been thrown. The effect is chilling, the whole, remarkably done. This carried right down to small gestures. Núñez’s commanding finger, so well deployed in Onegin was used here to wonderful effect, this was Swan Princess in full regalia, ukase in one imperious gesture.
She was partnered by Carlos Acosta. The pair’s wonderful compatibility was well displayed in the pas de deux of Act I and throughout. Núñez begun (and later ended) that pas with exquisite pirouettes, shading her interpretation with tender glances and appropriate winsomeness. When she swoons into Acosta’s arms the effect was magical, like a bodily sigh.
And who couldn’t resist that gentle solicitous touch he offers, as if opening her wings, to begin that duet? Finger turns and supporting were wonderfully carried off, Acosta’s touch was delicate yet firm. Here is a man who marries strength and gentleness: no wonder so many women (and men!) like him.
Despite her gifts, I only had one minor qualm with her casting. As happy as it is that Miss Núñez graciously stepped in to replace Sarah Lamb, as above, as crazy as it sounds, she was not my first choice when picking who to see in the role of Odile/Odette. This comes down to nothing more judgemental than appearance. Nothing can disguise the fact that she is in fact an extremely toned young woman, as needs must dictate (I get the impression that this truly is a swan who could break your arm with a flap of her wing!). Lamb strikes me as softer in tone, as if she could be a little more naturally “ethereal” than Núñez. This is mere preference. And I didn’t leave the House feeling cheated or deflated by having seen Núñez! Far from it, which is perhaps a salutary lesson to either a) not judge, or b) go and see everyone in everything.We can’t help who we like though. When friends say “Oh, I don’t like xzy dancer…” we exclaim in disbelieving tones, “but how can you not?”. To us, their worth is obvious, but to others, something doesn’t sit right, or they get a funny vibe when they watch them. Or maybe they just “don’t like them”. So it goes.
So, where I had imagined Lamb and Acosta as strength meeting the ethereal, there was instead a meeting of similarities: two striking dancers, both athletically powerful and their bodies showing it. That’s not to say that it was poorer for it (nor that Ms Lamb isn’t herself poweful!). That same terrific physical fitness allowed Núñez to power through Odile’s famous fast fouettés with ease, throwing out doubles as if they were trifles, and I think ending on at least a triple turn (?)* – hard to tell when Mr Acosta begun his choreographical fireworks at front of stage and ends the same. Here are two dancers secure in fantastic technique – the effect is properly thrilling and not a little dazzling! Núñez seems to be at the peak of her powers. And dazzling too, was her Odile as a whole. Impish grins, commanding looks, seduction, here were offered hints of sexual depth, the evil lass easily snaring Siegfried in her net. In a way, I thought to myself, the difference between Odile and Odette is all down to the eyebrows, or rather, down to facial expression, and Miss Núñez is a very expressive at that, and really, is an expressive dancer from head to toe.
Gary Avis as Rothbart
As intended, all these fireworks passed off with loud applause, as did the act itself pass with fireworks – or rather a few flashpots – and Gary Avis’ wonderfully menacing laughter and pointing. Seen through binoculars, this was a treat in itself!
The corps de ballet did a good job in all their musical numbers, (though I wasn’t a fan of the stools dancing in Act 1…). Credit to them all for powering through a very fast Spanish Dance. Akane Takada and Tristan Dyer came out for some lusty tambourine thwacking, which I enjoyed more than when I saw it in Deane’s show.
The women of the corps made lovely swans. I am ambivalent about the lack of tutus, here changed to a kind of tulle-ish slyph-ish skirt but that is a small matter. I was very impressed by the very young swans (technically cygnets? but not to be confused with The Cygnets nor their dance!) I think these must have been young ladies from the Royal Ballet School, in their very early years of secondary education. It was heartening to see them here, and they were every bit as good as their older sisters. Sadly, my view of Swan Lines in this Swan Lake was interrupted by the presence of a huge head in front of me, belonging to a gentleman who must have been about six foot four, which served to block out the entire stage right from pit to ceiling. (So it goes. The gentleman to my left had it worse, as he was at the far end of row H, where a pillar obstructs the view anyway, so he only really had an aperture about 8 inches wide to see the whole show. Poor guy*.)
With heads a bit out of time and not as “sharp” as they could have been, the proper Cygnets dance was sadly not as good as I had hoped (Deane’s foursome were a marvel of synchronicity,) but, as I recall, I think their number had lost a member at short notice, leading to a substitution. There were so many changes, and knock on effects as such, that I lost track! Credit to the young ladies for working through it. I enjoyed the “Big Swans” credited as Claire Calvert and Helen Crawford, but for some reason seem to recall a change notice about Ms Calvert! I do recall Yasmine Naghdi once more front as centre and loving it in Act I, and she is credited as a Cygnet too.
The final Act seemed to accelerate in dramatic tension only in its closing few minutes, where my heart rate increased and I felt fully involved in the action. The vow of death scene and the actually deaths were very well done, and through the gap made by that aforementioned huge head, I just about managed to see the two lovers leap to their oblivion. From my seat, Mr Avis’s death throes were well done: a wiggly hand slow in expiring was a bit distracting and struck a false note briefly but was excused. As above, I think the man is wonderful. The Deane version of the Ascent to Heaven (my appellation) was notable for an extremely rickety – almost comically so – pneumatic magic carpet-like device lifting them to infinity, which juddered at start and at end. Here, happily, much more magic, though the pair stopped in their journey for us to sigh and muse how lovely they look, where I would have in fact liked them to be carried off into the magical hereafter. Stopping the swan-boat seems to almost stop the magic, but, I am no director.
On a final word about magic, I thought the framing device (a mirror cum-woodland forest?) for opening of Act II legitimately exquisite, and magical. Truly thrilling. For me though, the production as a whole wasn’t quite shot through with that same thrill or magic. It’s a bit of shame, when the dancing was this good from the principals. I hear though, that this version is to be shortly retired. It is after all, nearly thirty years old! I look forward to the new offering with interest.
Until then, I have about four more outings of this same production to see, with McRae and Obratszova, Cuthbertson and Muntagirov, and Osipova and Golding. It will be illuminating for me to see each dance, and to see who I like the most.
On reflection, 8/10.
Requisite terrible phonecam photo:
* One particular instance of “???” sticks in mind. Before one of MN’s solo, the orchestra were really playing quite fast and when she began to actually dance her solo to the same theme, they had to slow down about 50%, which really jarred the ear.
* Her vestibular system is a gift from God.
* He was however fully equipped with what looked to be naval binoculars of titantic size, this enormous apparatus so big as to necessitate his having to set it down beside him after use, which led to a lot of noise. His field of view must have been miniscule.