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Swan Lake

by on 31 January 2019

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Swan Lake

by Pyotr Tchaikovsky , choreography by Victor Smirnov-Golovanov after Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov and others.

Moscow City Ballet at Richmond Theatre until 31st January, then UK Tour continues until 2nd March

A review by Mark Aspen

In a ballet that is so full of ironies as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, it is perhaps appropriate that Smirnov-Golovanov, the Moscow City Ballet’s late chorographer should choose to make the character of the Jester so important.

The Jester is in on all of the action in the court of Prince Siegfried and acts rather like a one-man Greek chorus in commenting on the action. Aleksei Tsauko makes a very expressive Jester, embellishing his athletic yet relaxed style with adept tumbling and mime.

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Tsauko’s nicely controlled jetés served to reassure me about the constraints of the Richmond Theatre stage. The ballet opens onto designer Natalia Povago’s beautiful cinnamon court, where the Jester is a prime mover in the celebrations of Siegfried’s twenty-first birthday. But when over two dozen dancers are in full flight the Richmond stage begins to look rather small. However, version choreography director Natalia Ryzhenko skilfully manages to overcome any potential problems, including the notoriously steep rake on this stage. One wonders, nevertheless, whether the male principals were inhibited by space limitations in the power that they could deliver to the larger moves.

In the birthday scenes Siegfried and his friend Benno do a lot of what 21 year olds do: they drink. (And my, they get through a quiet a few goblets of wine … or possibly vodka?) The admonishments of the Queen, in this production Siegfried’s aunt, that his coming of age means he must choose a bride, go unheeded. Olga Orlova plays a suitably haughty Prince’s Aunt, a statuesque disapproving observer. As Benno, Dzmitry Lazovik, the MCB’s youngest principal dancer, brings a fresh lightness to the part, imbuing it with easeful fluidity, which speaks of the light-hearted nature of Siegfried’s confidante, a temperament accentuated by Lazovik’s natural ballon.

Siegfried always seems to be at a loose end at his birthday bash, and it is not until Benno suggests a spot of evening hunting that he has chance to come into his own. The enchanting full moon (beautifully executed by lighting designer Evgeny Selivanov) throws its evanescent glow across Povago’s lake (which, as an aside, is eerily reminiscent of the Dorset coastline at Durdle Door). However, this is the Swan Lake, a lake of tears where the Princess Odette is held captive by the black arts of the evil Von Rothbart, in the guise of the Queen of the Swans, only briefly resuming her human form in the moonlight. In this conducive ambience, Odette and Siegfried fall in love.

SwanLakepromo4The established Principal Dancer, Daniil Orlov, tall and imposing, is a suitably princely Siegfried and is well matched with the company’s Prima Ballerina, Lillia Orekhova, who is often described as “the Face of the Moscow City Ballet”. Slender and sinuous she has the swan-like grace and portrays the elusively of the captive swan. However, their initial well-known pas de deux seems somewhat restrained, marked in delivery. It proved to be held-back for things to come later, lost in the chocolate-box symmetry of the corps de ballet’s eighteen fluttering swans. Another famous avian piece, the pas de quatre of the cygnets was an audience pleaser. Then Odette disappears from the Prince’s sight in Orekhova’s delicate quivering bourrées.

All the while Von Rothbart, disguised as an owl, has been hovering around the pair. A sinister black figure with filigree wings, Principal Talgat Kozhabaev’s interpretation of the bird of prey, ubiquitously stalking has an apprehensive feel.

The next day auntie has organised a debutantes’ ball at which Siegfried is obliged to consider candidates for his marriage, would-be brides who have come from all over the world. The presentation of the eligible princesses is a pleasing showcase of some fine dancing. Polina Dyachkova, the Hungarian Bride, dressed in pale grey, has a vivacious grace in her czardas, an arresting opening to this divertissement. The staccato passion of Kseniya Stankevich’s Spanish Bride, very much sangre de Toro in her swirling dress, brings great gusto to her bolero with its tambourine and castanets motif. The strident motif of the Neapolitan Bride is set by the cornet, and Kseniya Basnet is a joy to watch as the tempo gradually quickens. Then Mariya Tsibulina and Larisa Robles-Zaleveskaya complete this colourful interlude with the twin Polish Brides’ mazurka, danced with folksy abandon.

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But all good things come to an end as the ball is gate-crashed by Von Rothbart and his nefarious daughter, Odile. Recognising the resemblance to Odette, the hitherto listless Siegfried is fired with desire. Orlov and Orekhova attack this scene with vigour. Maliciously seductive, the antithetical Odile teases Siegfried with allusions to Odette. Orekhova’s angular athleticism works well as Odile, a part often seen as the stronger in this mirrored double role, whist Orlov opens up with some strong interpretive working of his role including impressive tours jetés. Their rendering of the famous pas de deux and the multi-fouettées bravura, belied their earlier less inspired exposition. Equally, Kozhabaev opened up the confident triumph seen in Von Rothbart as he achieves his goal of tricking Siegfried into an engagement with his daughter. His strutting supremacy is echoed in Odile’s victorious lightness: she almost flies. Meanwhile, Siegfried has realised how he has been gulled. There is a moment of deflation that is so well acted by Orlov, a perforation of his soul.

The Hungarian Sinfonietta Orchestra, under the baton of Igor Shavruk, take the ballet on a musical journey much appreciated by the audience. Shavruk knows when to underline the whimsy, to have fun; or, in the most dramatic parts, to really punch home the power of Tchaikovsky’s score.

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Back at the lake for the final act, the tempestuous setting adds to the drama in a concatenation of pathos, then fear, then despair. The anguished realisation for Odette of Von Rothbart’s treachery and the last attempts of the hapless Siegfried to beg forgiveness, and the torment of the swan-maidens expressed in the forming and re-forming of the corps de ballet, lead to an intense finale. In the many versions of Swan Lake, some end happily, most end tragically, but this one ends ambiguously. Siegfried fights and overcomes Von Rothbart, but are the swan-maidens freed form their bounds? Are Siegfried and Odette forever united in an apotheosis of their love? Or are they drowned in the lake of tears, the Swan Lake?

Death or glory? Perhaps the ambiguity is the quintessence of this Swan Lake. It starts with a Jester and the irony is that the jester figuratively has the last laugh.

Mark Aspen
January 2019

Photography by Nada Savic

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