writers on dancing


Swan Upping

“Swan Lake”
Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
November 30, 2004 – January 16, 2005

“Swan Lake”
Royal Ballet
Covent Garden Opera House
December 22, 2004 – January 25 2005

by John Percival
copyright © 2004 by John Percival

Too bad that the Tchaikovsky estate gets no benefit from our current glut of “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker”, since his music is the one reliable draw and satisfaction of the varied versions. And they could hardly be more different, one from another, than the two productions of “Swan Lake” that have been competing at Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells (quite apart from multiple touring versions outside London by miscellaneous Russian companies, which I have not seen).

I can’t pretend to sympathise with the praise heaped by many commentators on Matthew Bourne’s staging, created almost ten years ago at the Wells, now revived there and on tour. This seems to me like a comic book version of the classic story. Its audience appeal is more explicable. Box office sales have broken records for this theatre, thanks to immense publicity and the appeal (partly but not only to a gay audience) of its male swans. Lez Brotherston’s costume design for them must be the show’s most potent image: bare chests, bare feet, and puffed out feathery britches between them. A pity these make the Prince in his white long-johns (don’t ask how he arrived in the park wearing them!) look like a skinny wimp. Their stamping dances are forceful but unsubtle and fragmentary; there can be few successful choreographers so lacking in real movement invention. Nor does the highly camp plot make much sense; clearly we are meant to associate the leather-trousered Stranger in the ballroom scene with the lead Swan, but it’s not like an Odette/Odile treatment and the man-loves-man issue remains ambiguous. Packed houses giggle, however, at Mr Bourne’s heavy-footed jokes about the royal family: corgis, regimented servants nodding at the audience, and the most ludicrous representation imaginable of a ballet gala.

No surprise that this year’s revival is less well performed than in the past; when new, such celebrated dancers as Adam Cooper and Fiona Chadwick, both from the Royal Ballet, were happy to appear in it together with long-time Bourne colleague Scott Ambler (now associate director). The latest crop isn’t in that class. José Tirado is a highly expressive dancer but inevitably without Adam Cooper’s physical and emotional charisma, and although Neil Westmoreland gives the Prince a bright smile and much agility, he finds only limited pathos in the role. Nicola Tranah gives a coldly unappealing Queen and most of the minor roles too are negligently done compared with the originals (especially the caricature of the Duchess of York), while the ensembles show more discipline than spirit. The music, too, has brusque handling under Benjamin Pope’s direction of what I imagine to be a pick-up band (only 27 players). But the audience claps and cheers at every opportunity. However much acclaimed the production is, for me it remains a ballet for people who don’t really like ballet.

At Covent Garden, Valery Ovsyanikov’s conducting of “Swan Lake” started rather melodramatically and later became occasionally lugubrious, but maintained a good standard of playing. The other constant in the Royal Ballet’s production is the corps de ballet: enthusiastically vigorous in the Act 1 waltz, with its perhaps too congested choreography by David Bintley, and pleasingly lyrical as the ensemble of lakeside swans. If the national dances in Act 3 come off less well, that can be put down (like the oddities of period and drama) to Anthony Dowell’s inconsistent production.

The leading roles have four or five varying interpreters during the run, but they don’t come better than the opening night couple, who were as dazzling and—equally important—as emotional as we have seen for many a long year. Most ballerinas would be eclipsed by Carlos Acosta’s brilliance and elegance as the hero Siegfried. Not Tamara Rojo, however. Her immensely fast and secure fouettées (there must have been nearly 40 of them, including many triples) and her astonishingly long-held balance provided a breath-taking climax to her seductive Odile, villainous alter-ego of her tragic Swan Queen Odette, whose tender love grew movingly to a final self-sacrifice. Ms Rojo and Mr Acosta work beautifully together, and one or two out-of-time soloists in supporting roles (notably Yohei Sasaki, pas de trois soloist, and big swan Sarah Lamb) could have learned a lot from the way this pair of principals respond unfailingly to the patterns and likewise the feelings of Tchaikovsky’s score.

The other cast I saw had Zenaida Yanovsky as Odette and Odile. Many spectators admired her performance, but for me it seemed too bland, however smoothly done. She is tall for a dancer, and her very able and attentive partner, Kenneth Greve, was doubtless invited for that reason. He has been twelve years a leading dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet (where he was born and trained), and before that with NYCB, ABT—where Nureyev picked him out for Paris, but the French dancers didn’t want an outsider—Stuttgart and Vienna. At this, his RB debut, although his solo dancing was presentable enough, I thought maybe he was past his peak of technique. However, he gave a good deal dramatically in spite of an unresponsive partner and a sometimes daft production. Whatever led Anthony Dowell to make Siegfried and Benno bring unsheathed swords to the ball and hit arriving guests on the backside with them? And that’s only one of many absurdities. The RB used to have a far more convincing “Swan Lake”, and one day it must again. Soon, I hope.

First: Zenaida Yanowsky as Odette, Kenneth Greve as Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake" photo Johan Persson
Second:  Tamara Rojo as Odile, Carlos Acosta as Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake."
Zenaida Yanowsky as Odile in "Swan Lake" photo Johan Persson.

Volume 3, No. 2
January 10, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by John Percival


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