sat 25/05/2024

Swan Lake, English National Ballet, London Coliseum | reviews, news & interviews

Swan Lake, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

Swan Lake, English National Ballet, London Coliseum

Great Cojocaru and Vasiliev provide the cherry on top of a wonderful company production

Falling for a swan: Ivan Vasiliev's Siegfried is gorgeously tender to Alina Cojocaru's exquisite Odette© ASH/ENB

The twelve days of Christmas may be over, but I have good news for ballet fans in London: a whole new batch of presents for you has washed up at the Coliseum, and it's overflowing with lords-a-leaping, ladies dancing, and swans-a-swimming.

In Derek Deane's production (a vast improvement on his 1997 arena version for the Royal Albert Hall) English National Ballet really have a gem of a Swan Lake: even where I disagree with Deane's decisions, I find the whole package intensely likeable.  And when, as happened last night, there are stupendous principals performing the main roles and a corps de ballet on excellent form for the legendary white acts, it's quite simply a treat.

Alina Cojocaru as Odile with James Streeter as RothbartIn November, ENB's star ballerina Alina Cojocaru withdrew from a Swan Lake performance in Milton Keynes in order to stand in for an injured dancer at the Bolshoi in Moscow, greatly upsetting fans.  I'm sorry to have to rub salt in their wounds by reporting that her Odette/Odile is indeed a sight worth seeing: Cojocaru can dance the great, technically challenging ballerina roles with a control and mastery that few others can match, and she's a superb actress too, though in my opinion lacking the gravitas of the very greatest interpreters of the role.  Both her Odette and her Odile have a certain girlish quality. As Odette she retains a cautious, self-protective demeanour through almost the whole of Act II - there's no abandonment to passion in Siegfried's embrace, just a brief moment of joy when he pledges his love before her eyes go blank again, as the evil Rothbart magically returns her to her swan state. Her Odile is a daddy's girl, constantly glancing at Rothbart (James Streeter) for approval (pictured right); as a siren she's flirty, rather than fatal.  Her Act IV, though, is terribly affecting, all frail hopelessness in the knowledge of her inescapable approaching death.

Cojocaru was fortunate indeed to have Ivan Vasiliev as her PrinceSiegfried. Previously most famous in London as the Russian made of rubber, purveyor (with ex-girlfriend Natalia Osipova) of huge stunt jumps and ooh-ah thrills in potboilers like Don Quixote, Vasiliev showed in last night's performance that he deserves to keep his hold on the public's affections even as his jumping powers tail off with age.  Like Carlos Acosta, he's a delightfully sincere, satisfying hero, partnering his leading lady with tender steadiness and emoting his heart out.  Purists prefer slenderer, leggier chaps, but Vasiliev's awestruck gentleness in the Act II Pas de deux and his heartrending contrition in Act IV were everything I want in a Siegfried.  He even put his short stature to good use by reverently pressing his cheek to Odette's neck, a gesture he repeated to brilliantly creepy effect on Odile, the force and carnal desire behind it intensifying the shock of his faithlessness.

The dancers of ENB as swansThough these two are heavyweight international stars (and will perform another three times this run, which - with three performances by Tamara Rojo as well - is really an embarrassment of riches), they are far from the sole highlight of the show, which deserves the very highest accolades as an ensemble performance. I have been known to say bad words about Act I of Swan Lake and its interminable peasant dances, but it was sheer delight last night.  Some of the music had in fact been cut, but the performances were so good I wouldn't have minded having more. Lauretta Summerscales (who dances Odette/Odile later in the run) was gorgeous leading the Pas de trois: musical, crisp and perfectly controlled, while both the Pas de douze and the other large group number were executed with astonishing precision and radiant élan, ENB's corps dancing as well as I've ever seen them.  The swans in the two white acts (pictured left) had been coached brilliantly in necks and arms, but I could wish (being very nitpicky) that they had also been a hair more precise in their lines and quieter on their pointes.  No fault to them, though, at the very end: when the massed swans lifted their heads as one they seemed to defeat Rothbart with a steely gaze alone, the embodiment of implacable nature - which then swiftly gave way to the purest reverence, as they knelt before the ascending spirits of Odette and Siegfried, united in death.

In both Act I and Act III, the court appears to be a fairly modest affair, a minor German princedom rather than a huge stuffy Versailles. Peopled by the friendly faces of ENB's corps, this setting seems so nice that I couldn't quite see why the prince was so utterly gloomy - until we met the Queen (Jane Haworth), a wonderfully imperious, blonde manipulating mama à la Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, with a devastating line in dismissive hand gestures.

Peter Farmer's designs are charming, Gothic without being Gothick.  An oak forest is the main setting: a happy Altdorfer-ish grove at first, which becomes an oppressive Wald with a suffusion of smoky yellow light, very Caspar David Friedrich. The lake is enclosed by trees too and appears small, grey and agitated, the choppy waters of a mountain lochan - the mountains suggested by rocky outcrops and steep ramps, which add a wonderful dynamism to the swans' entrances.  And Act III is graced with a fantastic colonnade, veering off into the distance to add lots of depth and openness to the scene - you can even see the forest through it, and the vision of Odile could actually have been the swan-woman herself, looking on in horror through the open columns.

The orchestra under Gavin Sutherland played really rather well, I thought, worth listening to even when not accompanying the dances. There was a wonderful, ominous poignancy in the woodwinds over low strings in the entr'acte to Act IV, which shows how misguided it wass to put a danced prologue in the Introduction, as Deane has chosen to do. I like getting to see Odette as a normal girl, but there's far too much of Rothbart and his big scary wings (and terrible, drawn-on beard) in this production already without making us wonder why the heck he's lurking in the forest abducting people when we should be savouring the thrilling build-up to that majestic brass entry over rumbling timpani, tragedy incarnate.  The last act is not the pure Tchaikovsky version, suffering from an interpolated Act III number as an excuse for a rather dull Pas de deux, but neither is it the clunky Drigo arrangement used by the Mariinsky.

There's so much else that could be praised - charming Crystal Costa and Fernando Bufalá in the Neapolitan Dance; the subtly pinked edges of the swan tutus - but too little space. This is a wonderfully compelling account of an indispensable classic ballet, and - thanks to the Coliseum's vast capacity - there are bound to be tickets still available.  Go on - you won't regret it.

  • English National Ballet are performing Swan Lake at the London Coliseum until 18 January.
Vasiliev's awestruck gentleness in Act II and his heartrending contrition in Act IV were everything I want in a Siegfried


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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