Swan Lake is perhaps the most well-known of all classical ballets. Since debuting at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877, Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece has been performed by countless companies in numerous locations and guises (including Matthew Bourne’s interpretation with male swans) and the subject of films, including the Oscar-winning Black Swan. What makes this piece so popular? Is it the man in green running around the stage with too much make-up on, hating on swans? I think so. Interestingly, the first production was often dismissed as a failure and it wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century that Swan Lake gained momentum. The English National Ballet first performed the complete four-act piece in Verona in 1964 and this, exploding on to the London Coliseum’s stage in a flurry of feathers, is the ninth for the company.
Tchaikovsky’s composition is just as well-known as the ballet itself – perhaps even more so for those who haven’t seen it, pressed into popular culture as it is. Gavin Sutherland conducts well and maintains a frequently ominous beauty. The culmination is an exquisitely beautiful ‘sending off’ of the doomed couple in Act IV by the strings. I could have closed my eyes and listened to it for two hundred blissful years.
For someone who had been waiting to see Swan Lake for quite some time, I was rather disappointed by Peter Farmer’s design. Aesthetically, it is what I was expecting – all gothic earthy tones and pale minimalism – yet the set pieces themselves look like cardboard, as though they could blow away with one flap of Rothbart’s wings.
The ensemble perform perfectly and the cygnets especially look heavenly as they dance in formation. Ivan Vasiliev’s Prince Siegfried took a short while to remember to balance, landing clumsily from his tour en l’air a couple of times, though he gained his stride in Act III with breathtaking effectiveness. His acting more than anything is impressive: the sharp contrasts of ecstatic happiness and distress bring a colourful and exciting light to the production.
Alina Cojocaru’s Odette seems a little troubled and doesn’t quite emote enough to warrant sympathy. Her Odile is different, certainly, but rather than an evil and dangerous temptress, she appears very pleased with herself in an unthreatening way. There is great emphasis too on her being led by her father, Rothbart (James Streeter), sealing the same childlike innocence that Cojocaru’s Odette has, which really defeats the purpose. Yet there’s no denying this ballerina’s presence as a superstar dancer: applause after applause was launched at the stage at every opportunity to congratulate Cojocaru’s phenomenal technique.
There are some magical moments in Swan Lake, including Act IV’s climax, and another from the final section, which sees the cygnets rise steadily from a cloud of smoke. The company has some extraordinary talent and this is showcased, but the show itself unfortunately lacks a consistent sparkle and energy.Swan Lake is playing at the London Coliseum until 18 January. For more information and tickets, see the English National Ballet website. Photo by ASH.