A Tale of Two Swans – the Royal Ballet & American Ballet Theatre Perform Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky
Swan Lake – Ballet in Four Acts

Odette / Odile – Ekatarina Osmolkina
Prince Siegfried – Marcelo Gomes
The Princess – Genesia Rosato
An Evil Spirit / Von Rothbart – David Pickering
The Tutor – Jonathan Howells
Benno – Thomas Whitehead

Act I
Pas de Trois – Bethany Keating, Iohna Loots, Brian Maloney

Act II
Cygnets – Ruth Bailey, Leanne Cope, Elizabeth Harrod, Sabina Westcombe
Two Swans – Samantha Raine, Hikaru Kobayashi

Act III
Lord Chamberlain – Ryoichi Hirano
Six Princesses – Claire Calvert, Celisa Diuana, Melissa Hamilton, Laura McCulloch, Pietra Mello-Pittman, Lara Turk
Spanish Dance – Tara Brigitte Bhavnani, Laura McCulloch, Anfrej Uspenski, Johannes Stepanek
Czárdás – Kristin McNally, Ricardo Cervera, Artists of The Royal Ballet
Neapolitan Dance – Yuhui Choe, Paul Kay
Mazurka – Christina Arestis, Francesca Filpi, Olivia Cowley, Demelza parish, Kenta Kura, Erico Montes, Xander Parish, Eric Underwood

Act IV
Two Swans – Samantha Raine, Hikaru Kobayashi

Swans, cygnets, peasants – Artists of The Royal Ballet
Ladies-in-waiting, cadets, servants, pages, dwarves – Students of The Royal Ballet School

Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov – Choreography
Frederick Ashton & David Bintley – Additional Choreography
Anthony Dowell – Production
Yolanda Sonnabend – Designs
Mark Henderson – Lighting
Christopher Carr – Staging

Odette/Odile – Veronika Part
Prince Siegfried – Marcelo Gomes
The Queen Mother – Nancy Raffa
Wolfgang, TheTutor – Clinton Luckett
Benno – Thomas Whitehead
Von Rothbart, An Evil Sorcerer – Vitali Krauchenka & David Hallberg

Act I
Pas de Trois – Maris Riccetto, Isabella Boylston , Gennadi Saveliev

Act II
Cygnettes – Yuriko Kajiya, Sarah Lane, Misty Copeland, Marian Butler
Two Swans – Hee Seo, Nicola Curry

Act III
Master of Ceremonies – Clinton Luckett
The Hungarian Princess – Misty Copeland
The Spanish Princess – Leann Underwood
The Italian Princess – Renata Pavam
The Polish Princess – Yuriko Kajiya
Czárdás – Marian Butler, Alexei Agoudine, Artists of American Ballet Theatre
Spanish Dance – Maria Bystrova, Roman Zhurbin Jessica Saund, Cory Stearns
Neapolitan Dance – Blaine Hoven, Grant Delong
Mazurka – Artists of American Ballet Theatre

Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov – Choreography
Zack Brown – Sets & Costumes
Duane Schuler – Lighting

The Orchestra of The Royal Opera House
Valeri Ovsyanikov

The Orchestra of English National Opera
Charles Barker


Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 26 March, 2009
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London & The Coliseum, London

Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet. ©Johan PerssonLondon is presently suffering from sudden increase in its swan population – in a ridiculous example of two companies not talking to each other, both The Royal Ballet and visiting company American Ballet Theatre (at the London Coliseum as part of their Spring Dance Season) are going head-to-head for the feathered friend fanciers among the dance-going population. In addition, on two consecutive nights, each company presented a Russian ballerina in the lead role of Odette/Odile, arousing some interest from the gloom of yet another run of the perennial favourite and old box office fall back that is Swan Lake.

The Royal’s production has been trotted out on countless occasions since it was new in 1987 and its virtues, which include a very sound choreographic text and a dramatic coherence, are well documented, as are its weaknesses – too much extraneous business (especially in Act I) and increasingly dated designs and gloomy lighting. In this outing, the scenery in particular has become an aberration – Yolanda Sonnabend’s sets were controversial twenty years ago, not least the Fabergé egg front cloth and the spindly stage constructions (think the Queen Mother gates at Hyde Park), as well as over-fussy costuming. As we end the first decade of the twenty-first century, they are no longer fit for purpose, and the sooner The Royal jettisons this production the better.

Whether The Royal Ballet wishes to go for something as consciously old-fashioned as the American Ballet Theatre’s version is another question. They are a curious mix – sometimes incredibly impressive (the forest curtain is beautifully painted), at others just weird (the Act III Great hall is distinctly St Pancras Station), but the lakeside is clearly a lakeside with a lake in the background (even if the princely schloss is more Scooby-doo than Neuschwanstein), and Odette and then Siegfried hurl themselves into oblivion clearly and from a discernible crag.

Swan Lake. American Ballet TheatreCostuming is more of a problem, with a distinctly trans-Atlantic take on period authenticity – the Queen Mum was decked out like the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, while the Tutor was a puritan and the peasant girls were rejects from Giselle’s Act I harvest party. The Act III ball brought some of the most lurid colour combinations to be seen since the heyday of Technicolor – who thought lime-green, fuchsia and beige were a good combination? Most amusing of all were the peasant boys in the first act who wore pastel hot pants (peasants are poor, you see, and cannot afford long tights) – for all the world Napoli fishermen re-imagined at Studio 54. Oh how we laughed.

The Royal won on musical terms with a sensitive Valeri Ovsyanikov guiding the ROH orchestra on unusually attentive form (for the ballet), moments of peace and tranquillity nicely contrasted with the vim of the rest. Charles Barker presided over a noisy performance from the ENO ensemble, Tchaikovsky as played by the village band rather – it was painted very much in primary colours and with the broadest of brushstrokes and did not serve this (over) familiar score.

Swan Lake. American Ballet TheatreThe Royal’s choreographic text is its strongest card, the Petipa discernibly Petipa, and all the Ivanov of Act II in place, and Act IV re-created from notations now in the Harvard Library. ABT’s McKenzie cannot compete, and while much of the first lakeside was more or less Ivanov, the Petipa suffered (not least the pas de trois), and Act IV was not really anything at all. McKenzie is no choreographer, so his interpolations stick out as really below par in such illustrious company – flapping arms and arched backs a swan do not make. Additionally, he is not too hot on narrative, so Act I became a series of unconnected dances for varying combinations of dancers – never was a thread established or a reason for doing what they were doing given (the Royal wins hands down on that one). I liked the Act III conceit of each of the four princesses bringing their own retinue to present their national dance (the Royal presents all the national dancers as members of Von Rothbart’s retinue) and was not too bothered by Von Rothbart (a scene stealing David Hallberg) having a variation and then proceeding to seduce/enchant all four princesses. Two dancers – one, the Gollum-like lake creature and the other the ‘human’ version, dance Von Rothbart. It works surprisingly well, and I was happy to go along with it, given that the story is so silly anyway. But one word of advice: we do not need the capture and ‘transformation’ of Odette into a swan during the prologue, especially when Human Von R and Odette are replaced by Gollum and a fluffy swan, for all the world like Rod Hull and Emu – an unintentional highlight of the evening! Compared with all of this, The Royal’s Von Rothbart is rather staid and un-frightening, especially in his shoulder-padded owl lakeside number.

How about the dancing? The Royal were on precise and neat form, the pas de trois efficiently executed (a cracking variation from Brian Maloney), and swans precise and pliant in all they did. ABT does not have a unity of style, and this compromises any ensemble work – individuals stand out, notably Gennadi Saveliev’s Benno (who dances the pas de trois), whose entrechats fluttered like the wings of a hummingbird – he is a neat, unshowy and classical. Elsewhere, there were too many wayward arms and a general lack of awareness of épaulement, with stiff shoulders and waists for the choreography to come alive – there is an ingrained striving for athleticism and less for grace, elegance and a follow-through of movement to include all parts of the body. Men in ABT tend to the chunky, legs and buttocks rather over-developed to allow for grace of movement, and the women lean too towards the athletic.

Swan Lake. American Ballet TheatreBut any Swan Lake stands or falls on its lead couple. ABT’s Marcello Gomes is a confident partner and has an easy, natural technique, which allows him to move with ease and grace – he has a large jump and traces clear lines in the air. Ivan Putrov, slim as he is, cast a more elegant shadow, although his astonishing ballon has not really returned since his recovery from serious injury. He invested the part with at first an adolescent truculence and then a bland admiration of his feathered amour. Gomes is allowed by the production more introspection, and he does hangdog well.

The two Russian ballerinas made for interesting comparisons. Osmolkina has risen through the ranks of the Mariinsky company, and is a fine dancer – although one has to wonder why a company of The Royal’s international standing has to call upon an outside ballerina to step into the breach. Osmolkina adapted herself to the Royal’s far more naturalistic approach, learning the Act II mime well enough and adapting what she knows is Odettte/Odile to what London is used to. She is tall and healthy-looking, with a very expressive and pliant back and long, strong legs. Her technique is formidable and she is unafraid of what the role demands of her. Veronika Part is perhaps not quite as technically strong, but she too has a striking stage presence with long legs and arms.

The difference between the two lay in their interpretations: Osmolkina was distinctly cool, bland even, with little of the underlying melancholy which is vital in Odette. Her dancing as the White Swan was beautiful indeed, the choreography phrased and delivered with real aplomb, but she was cold as marble, to be admired, but not a character with whom to empathise. Osmolkina does not move. Her Odile was baroque, rococo even, in her swirling curlicues of arms; this detracted from the glittering precision which differentiates the Black Swan from the White and made less of an impression. Veronika Part is also a product of the Mariinsky although she has gone over to the other side and is now a permanent member of ABT (inexplicably as a First Soloist, which does not allow her a biography in the thinnest of programmes – that’ll be £5.00 please). As Odette, her melancholy was palpable, her fear at falling for Siegfried real, her suspicion that her hopes would be dashed clearly visible; as Odile, she delivered a sharp and stabbing 40s vamp, a dominatrix who ensnares the hapless Siegfried. Her face is period, with a toothiness which recalled the great Tamara Toumanova, and she engages directly with the audience, flashing triumphant smiles, exultant in the success of her seduction; she and Gomes made the Black Swan pas de deux a moment of real excitement, even if technically neither was quite as precise as their Royal counterparts. For my money a performance must move and excite before all else, and technical proficiency is no substitute for theatricality and communication with the audience. If a winner must be made, I would have to say that Part carried the day for me.

So, another couple of Swans are returned to the lakes from whence they came – but be assured, yet more will return: Matthew Bourne’s male Swan Lake is scheduled already for Sadler’s Wells at Christmas and the National Ballet of Cuba is back in April 2010 at the Coliseum with…you guessed it…Swan Lake. Booking is open; get in early to avoid disappointment.

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