What can I say about Swan Lake that hasn’t been said already? It’s the definitive classical ballet, with its iconic all-white corps and the dual white/black swan role for the lead ballerina. On 17th March, the Royal Ballet screened their version, with its rather well-worn ‘Fabergé-inspired’ designs from the 1980s refreshed by the appearance of relative newbies to the RB, Natalia Osipova and Matthew Golding, in the title roles.
The ballet opens with an act entirely comprised of human beings… and no swans. Anyone using ROH Live as a chance to try ballet for the first time – and there are usually quite a few – could be forgiven for wondering if they were in the right place. Instead, we meet young and handsome Prince Siegfried celebrating his birthday with a crowd of courtiers and adoring peasants. There are lively group dances set to Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, and the pas de trois is danced beautifully by Francesca Hayward, Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell – Hayward is so lively that at times it looks like she’s dancing on the end of a bungee cord. Ryoichi Hirano cuts a dashing figure as Siegfried’s friend and bad influence, Benno (thankyou, cinema close ups).
Act II sees Siegfried, Benno and friends arrive at a nearby lake in pursuit of a flock of swans. (Fun fact: when Googling to check that I’d used the right collective noun, I found a huge list of terms that can apply to a group of swans. When in flight, they can be called a ‘wedge;’ you can also use a ‘drift,’ a ‘bevy’ or a ‘lamentation,’ which has to be my favourite.) The Royal Ballet’s corps are a perfectly synchronised drift of swans, their fluttery, silver-white Romantic tutus creating a softer and more feathery silhouette than the more commonly-used classical tutus. As a result, the shapes they create onstage are less defined but no less beautiful. Interestingly, one of the behind the scenes films played at the interval focussed on the vital work of the Royal Ballet répétiteurs, who rehearse dancers in their roles. These coaches are the unsung heroes of professional ballet, and in the case of the swan corps, they deserve a huge amount of praise.
I think the time has now come to mention the principals… I’d waited with bated breath to see how Natalia Osipova would interpret Odette/Odile, and also to see Matthew Golding for the first time. I am not disappointed. At first I’m bowled over by Osipova’s superhuman technique – those high kicks, those huge leaps, those blistering turns – but this role is also about conveying two hugely diverse characters. As the Black Swan in Act III, Osipova’s every move is diamond sharp, with her eye-wateringly fast coda fouettés almost bringing down the house, but she isn’t as openly provocative as other Odiles. She locks eyes with Siegfried as they dance together, an ‘I know you want me’ smirk on her face, but really it’s all about the technique. As the White Swan though, we see Osipova so full of emotion that every movement seems spontaneous, natural and straight from the heart – her sorrow at Siegfried’s betrayal in Act IV is palpable. Initially I’m unsure about Golding, but he warms up as the ballet progresses, producing some wonderful turns in the Act III coda to match Osipova’s, and generally he cuts the sort of imposing, statuesque figure that suits a classical Prince role.
I only have some very trivial complaints about this production: the ‘lakeside’ set has a notable absence of lake (which could easily be fixed with some updated set designs, maybe even a nice projection of some watery ripples?), some of the swans in Act IV have half black tutus which visually connects them with the evil Odile, and the lovers’ deaths by falling onto a mattress in the corner of the stage is anticlimactic, sudden and a tad ridiculous-looking. But these are only minor points: the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake is a gem and right up there among my favourites.
I saw this ROH Live screening at the lovely Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells.