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Swan Lake

by on 6 January 2019

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Swan Lake

by Derek Deane after Marius Petipa , music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

English National Ballet at the London Coliseum until 13th January

Review by Suzanne Frost

Swan Lake was my first ballet, as I’m sure it undoubtedly is for many people, and seeing a matinee performance with lots of families in the audience, it seems it will continue to be that perfect introduction to the art form. ENB’s Swan Lake, choreographed by Derek Deane after Petipa, was first created in 1992 to be played in the round at the Royal Albert Hall and remains, slightly scaled down for the classic proscenium stage of the Coliseum, London’s most rock-solid traditional production.


The curtain opens on a leafy clearing with lovely warm autumn colours. I love a muted colour palette! Nevertheless, the costumes seem to be thrown together from various epochs, a bit of medieval, a bit of renaissance, a touch of baroque, as if the briefing was “something period” – and most of the people around at Prince Siegfried’s birthday party seem to be peasants. The prince himself, Francesco Gabriele Frola, is a dashingly handsome Italian, on loan this season from National Ballet of Canada and definitely someone to watch.

As a first highlight, the pas de trois is perfectly lovely and very well danced; the exceptionally long legged Erik Woolhouse has entrelacé that just soar. Initially, the production seems to go easy on the miming and mostly aims to speak through dance alone. It is very busy choreography though and a lot of bodies on stage. Having recently been to Matthew Bourne’s contemporary version, I recall that at this time in the score his prince had already been to countless ribbon cutting ceremonies, been emotionally neglected by his mother the Queen, got himself an inappropriate girlfriend, got papped by paparazzi at a dodgy bar and attempted suicide – all in the same time and music. In this traditional production, we barely got the story started and we don’t get a chance to find out very much about the handsome prince. He seems sad and a bit like a bystander to his own life. Ballet never cares to explore much depth in male leads, which is a shame.


Wanting to test his birthday gift, a crossbow, Siegfried is off to the forest and Derek Deane’s production opts for a break, closing the curtain down to push some scenery around. The result is a dramaturgical disaster! Not that we have established much stage magic just yet but whatever spell was there is broken, as people start getting up, walking about, getting their phones out and taking selfies. When conductor Gavin Sutherlands tries to pick back up, the orchestra is barely audible and the most magical, powerful part of Tchaikovsky’s score is drowned out in chatter. People literally don’t realise the shows continues until the curtain opens again – on another forest. All this mess for some different trees and a few puffs from a smoke machine. Traditional is all fine but I am just reminded of a friend of mine, a stage hand, who proudly performed a two-second scenery change for Yerma – during a blackout…


Anyway, back in the forest we are where we meet the sorcerer Rothbart, wearing a giant cape that allows for a very limited variety of ‘evil sorcerer’ movement. The beautifully fragile Erina Takahashi gives us an Odette that isn’t just shy but positively terrified. Her suffering is tangible and her technique flawless. Her balances are so endless she forces lead violinist Matthew Scrivener into ritardandos close to slow motion. His weeping violin is a perfect match with Takahashi’s interpretation of a traumatised princess close to giving up. She really fills those well-known steps with individuality. When she falls, she really falls, when she pulls away she really pulls, shifting her axis, taking risks. I like a risk taker in classical ballet, it feels much more real, like something is actually at stake for Odette. The ‘white act’ in the original untouched Ivanov/Petipa version is flawless, always has been and always will be and there’s very little you could do wrong. My only qualm would be that the stage again seems very busy. Twenty-four swans isn’t unusual per se but here, a line of decorative corps dancers often feels in the way, obstructing our main couple that could have easily filled the space all by themselves with their artistry.


Whenever a ballerina excels as the lyrical Odette I can’t wait to find out what she will do with Odile. Unfortunately, Deane, just like Liam Scarlett at ROH, opts for the version where the black swan’s entrance in immediately interrupted by the character dances. I’m never a great fan of cutting off a storyline for more divertissement but most of them are fine, the whirlwind Hungarian dance actually fantastic. When we finally get back to Odile, the music is too slow for my taste and there is no light change, to switch into a dreamlike state for the adagio – I know these are details but I like my Swan Lake just so and I suppose to get the perfect version that hits all your queues you probably have to stage your own…


Erina Takahashi has everything I’d want though from a black swan, all malicious smiles and perfectly mimicking, even mocking the mannerisms of Odette. Rothbart is interfering far too much in the iconic pas de deux for my taste but it gives the impression that rather than an impostor this could actually be the bewitched, obsessed Odette, which in a dramaturgical sense would kind of redeem Siegfried for not falling into the simplest of traps. The dashing prince finally gets to show some moves in his solo, which is flawless and points out even more what a thankless role Siegfried actually is. I think we haven’t seen half of what the handsome Italian actually would be capable of.

The pas de deux is very very well danced. People always clap at the 32 fouettées because they’ve heard about them – sure they are hard but the tours à la seconde that followed were spectacular! For all their tricks and stunts though (and boy that man can do great turns) they both never forgot to tell the story. You can see Siegfried falling in love and the betrayal that follows is truly heart breaking. Nobody in my audience needed that second interval. At this moment we were all, kids and grownups, invested in the story. In the last act I stopped taking notes. Something happened. The magic finally happened. The prince was genuinely, heart-breakingly sorry. In a most touching gesture, Odette made clear that not just her life was ruined, but that she is responsible for the fate of 24 cursed girls whom she graciously leads away before committing suicide, followed closely by the unlucky prince. Not a happy ending so. As it should be. I hate when they try to turn Swan Lake into a happy story.


So still, it seems, a perfect introduction to ballet. My last mention goes to Francesca Velicu, a lovely dancer who stood out for me in every role, from pas de trois to cygnet to princess, mostly for her graciously lyrical neckline and beautiful musical phrasing. Since ENB does such a wonderful thing as their Emerging Dancer People’s Choice Award, and she is among the names nominated, she gets my vote today.

Suzanne Frost
January 2019

Photography by Laurent Liotardo

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