The last time I saw the English National Ballet do Swan Lake, it was Derek Deane’s unforgettable in the round production, with 60 swans and a sea of dry ice filling the floor of the Royal Albert Hall. I’ve also seen the most recent Royal Ballet and Bolshoi productions at the Royal Opera House. This was an altogether different beast, with a reduced company taking to a much smaller stage at The Palace Theatre. I snapped up my £5 nosebleed seat ticket months ago, ecstatic that live classical ballet was coming to me in the outer reaches of…er… Manchester. I was prepared to take a chance on a restricted view, and as the casting was yet to be announced, I had to take a gamble on the last night – a Saturday – featuring one of my preferred principal ballerinas.
So, now I’ve got all of those pre-conceptions off my chest, I can tell you what it was actually like. Firstly, my view was fantastic. The Palace is probably the smallest venue I’ve ever watched a ballet in, so even though I was in the back row of the topmost tier, I was still close enough to observe details like facial expressions. (A miracle really, considering the same price ticket at the ROH could leave you unable to see half the stage.) I was definitely prepared to put up with reduced legroom for that. So, settled in my seat with a glass of wine, I was ready to revisit the world’s favourite ballet.
Unusually, this production starts with a choreographed section to Tchaikovsky’s introduction. It portrays an innocent human Odette losing her way in the forest, being attacked by Rothbart and then – with a quick switch hidden by his enormous wings – transformed into a swan. This provides a clear opening to the story and makes good use of my favourite passage of music in the whole ballet, though Rothbart lingering onstage as the score cedes to Act I’s rousing introduction doesn’t feel right and fails to communicate the change of time or location. Act I itself is beautifully danced, with the musical choreography and patterns of the group waltz a particular highlight. The pas de trois is effortlessly performed and Siegfried – danced by the lean, handsome Alejandro Virelles – interacts with the group dances rather than remaining regally detached. My only complaint is that the whole thing doesn’t feel much like a royal birthday party. There’s no drinking or mingling – dancers appear, do their thing and then disappear into the wings, leaving the stage largely unoccupied except for the Prince and his tutor. At this point, Deane’s productions adds a solo for the Prince set to a usually discarded musical variation from Act 3. Similar to Prince Florimund’s solo in Act II of Sleeping Beauty, it reveals a Siegfried full of sadness and longing to find love. The solution to this melancholy proposed by his tutor is to go hunting – thereby engineering his lakeside meeting with Odette – though I do question this production’s decision to have Siegfried go off hunting on his own. Surely, as in the RB version, he’d have an entourage?
But moving on. Act II epitomises everything Swan Lake is famous for – the beautiful, moonlit corps de ballet move as one, with gorgeous undulating arms and identically angled heads, forming perfectly symmetrical lines and a striking V shape reminiscent of flying birds. Laurretta Summerscales, a First Soloist debuting in the lead role, is a wonderfully skittish, fluttery Odette who soon calms under the influence of Prince Siegfried – throughout the performance, her level of acting is excellent. The action of Act II is slightly affected by unnecessary entrances and exits – Rothbart repeatedly runs between a platform in the corner of the stage and the stage level itself, while Odette’s presence onstage with all the swans at the start of the act detracts from her dramatic solo entrance minutes later.
Act III’s spectacular ballroom set is a fitting match for a spectacular Black Swan pas de deux – Summerscales absolutely nails the role of Odile, with a flirtatious yet menacing smile and gorgeous use of her wrists and hands. (Oh, and I counted 28 fouttés in the coda. Not bad). It is my favourite pas de deux in the whole of classical ballet and this one deservedly brought the house down. The national dances are full of colour and energy – I particularly liked the deeply arched backs of the female Spanish dancers. I wasn’t quite sure why Rothbart sat on a throne next to Siegfried’s mother – or rather, how he got away with it. The climax of the act, with the revelation of Odile and Rothbart’s trick, lacks some drama but this may be because of limitations connected with the staging/size of the touring company.
As the curtain rises on Act IV, the ballet’s last, we see the swans slowly emerging from a sea of dry ice, a beautiful effect familiar from the Royal Albert Hall staging. Their mournful dance to an often-cut passage of Tchaikovsky’s score is followed by Siegfried and Odette’s reunion, which is soon engulfed by Rothbart and the swelling, dramatic score. Remember when I mentioned pre-conceptions earlier? Well, when I saw the ENB dance Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall, it had a happy ending – Siegfried and Odette’s love vanquished Rothbart’s spell, he sank through a trapdoor and the swan maidens ran free. So imagine my surprise when Odette declares she will commit suicide, then actually does it. She runs to upstage right, jumps off a ramp in the corner and Siegfried follows suit. I have no problem with this change – I definitely think Swan Lake should end tragically – but there has to be a more dramatic, less ridiculous-looking way of killing off the leads than falling off the stage. The Royal Ballet do it the same way and I absolutely hate it.
But – all these little complaints aside – this is a fantastic production. The whole of the UK deserves to see top class classical ballet, not just London, and thanks to companies like the English National Ballet – we can.