‘Swan Lake’. The Royal Ballet

17 October 2012, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The Royal Ballet’s current production of Swan Lake is that of Anthony Dowell. It first went on show in 1987 after Dowell had engaged in a period of extensive research into the Petipa/Ivanov version of 1895. Australian audiences saw it in 2002 when the Royal Ballet, then under the direction of Ross Stretton, toured to various Australian cities. In 2002 I admired it. I thought it was danced beautifully (Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope were in the lead), and I loved the way the characters had been developed so each had a real presence in the production. Now I’m not so sure. Two Australian productions since then, one by Graeme Murphy and the most recent by Stephen Baynes, have had an effect.

This Royal Ballet production is set in fin-de-siècle Russia and so much about the production now seems overwrought, from the gilded excesses of Yolanda Sonnabend’s sets to the drunken excesses of Siegfried’s entourage. Act I seems to go on and on with much merrymaking and ‘let’s dance’ gestures.  Act II begins with more drunken activities before the swans appear and this act is also distinguished by the addition of several young student dancers from the Royal Ballet School, who are part of Odette’s entourage. This addition apparently harks back to the 1895 version, although I don’t remember that they made it to Australia in 2002! Anyway, they looked beautifully schooled and did their job more than nicely but I’m not sure they added anything of significance to the ballet. Act III has that lovely Tarantella choreographed by Frederick Ashton—certainly an interpolation to the 1895 version (as was David Bintley’s Act I Waltz). Von Rothbart’s two attendant dwarfs also made their presence felt in Act III.

Apart from the mime in which Odette dramatically tells Siegfried that she is about to die because he has betrayed her, Act IV was comfortingly familiar—if slightly kitsch—as Odette and then Siegfried threw themselves into the lake and reappeared sailing heavenwards in a ‘swan vehicle’. But despite what Dowell may have discovered about the 1895 choreography for Act IV, to me those arrangements of swans standing more like wilis or sylphs around Odette and Siegfried, and the emphasis on storytelling through mime, made me long for our own Australian versions where in Act IV the literal storyline gives way to a more abstracted and choreographically-inspired scene.

The big attraction for me, however, was the prospect of seeing Steven McRae dance the role of Siegfried. Technically he could scarcely be faulted. His tours en l’air for example began and finished in a beautifully tight fifth and a lovely deep demi-plié—such soft and pliant landings. His bearing from his first entrance onwards was regal and set him apart from the rest of the characters. His reading of the role was intelligent. At pretty much every point in his dealings with Odette, the Princess (his mother), his friends, von Rothbart and so on his approach was clearly expressed. Nothing was indistinct. Yet I wished that he had been a little more adventurous, and had thrown himself into the steps with greater gusto even if it meant his execution was a little less perfect. It was all too careful.

McRae partnered Roberta Marquez as Odette/Odile. I’m not sure that Marquez is well suited to the role of Odette as her dancing in Acts II and  IV had very little of the softness of arms and body that I associate with those acts. Odile suited her better although she struggled somewhat with some of the technical demands. Oh how I’d love to see someone handle with brilliance those double attitude turns at the beginning of Odile’s variation. Marquez simply went for a single.

I was impressed with the performance of Genesia Rosato as the Princess, Siegfried’s mother. She was a strong lady and demanding of her son. Her presence on stage was indeed commanding, even as she collapsed in a faint at the end of Act III. She had to make us look at her (and I did) and not the billowing red and white smoke that filled the stage as Odile and company departed in triumph. Others whose dancing stood out for me were Tara Bhavnani and Nathalie Harrison as the two leading swans. Both are tall, statuesque women with fluid backs and arms, which they used to the fullest advantage.

This production was not my ideal Swan Lake.  It is always interesting to speculate on what the ‘real’ Swan Lake was like but quite honestly I don’t think anyone will ever know and dance is an art form that is constantly being reinvented. The performance made me look forward more than ever to another look at the Baynes/Colman Swan Lake.

Michelle Potter, 20 October 2012

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