Swan Lake – Ballet in four Acts to choreography by Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov, additional
choreography by Liam Scarlett & Frederick Ashton
Odette/Odile – Yasmine Naghdi
Prince Siegfried – Vadim Muntagirov
The Queen – Christina Arestis
Von Rothbart – Bennet Gartside
Benno – James Hay
Prince Siegfried’s Sisters – Isabella Gasparini, Meaghan Grace Hinkis
Waltz and Polonaise – Mica Bradbury, Ashley Dean, Hannah Grennell, Gina Storm-Jensen, Luca Acri, Nicol Edmonds, Calvin Richardson, Joseph Sissens, Artists of The Royal Ballet
Cygnets – Sophie Allnatt, Ashley Dean, Sae Maeda, Charlotte Tonkinson
Two Swans – Melissa Hamilton, Mariko Sasaki
Swans – Artists of The Royal Ballet
Spanish Princess – Leticia Dias
Hungarian Princess – Melissa Hamilton
Italian Princess – Ashley Dean
Polish Princess – Julia Roscoe
Spanish dance – Gina Storm-Jensen, Téo Dubreuil, Benjamin Ella, Giacomo Rovero, Joseph Sissens
Czárdás – Mica Bradbury, David Yudes, Artists of The Royal Ballet
Neapolitan dance – Yuhui Choe, Luca Acri
Mazurka – Isabel Lubach, Tomas Mock, Artists of The Royal Ballet
Cygnets, Two Swans, Swans – as Act II
Court Ladies, Lieutenants, Corporals, Ladies-in-waiting, Servants, Heralds, Guards, Guests – Artists of
The Royal Ballet and Students of The Royal Ballet School
Liam Scarlett – Production
Lev Ivanov & Marius Petipa – original choreography
Liam Scarlett – additional choreography
Frederick Ashton – choreography for Neapolitan dance
Lighting designer – David Finn
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 2 March, 2022
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. London
What makes Swan Lake still the most famous and most popular ballet? The answer lies in one word: poetry. The Royal Ballet’s current production is written in prose. It is by the late Liam Scarlett whose untimely death in April 2021 shocked and saddened the ballet world; the opening night of this revival certainly provoked mixed feelings. Scarlett was subject to allegations of impropriety (which for the record were never brought before the courts) and was subsequently dropped by major ballet companies around the world, not least of which was his home ensemble The Royal Ballet which announced that they would no longer perform his ballets in their repertoire. Janus-like, they have made an exception of his 2018 production of Swan Lake, a hugely costly affair.
This production is not a good legacy by which to be judged; Scarlett was capable of creating abstract work of real quality (Asphodel Meadows in 2010 and Symphonic Dances in 2017 stand out), but he struggled with narrative ballets, his Frankenstein in 2016 a real disaster. That he was chosen by The Royal Ballet management to stage Swan Lake in 2018 remains a decision difficult to fathom; that his Swan Lake is not the best, no surprise. The previous staging by Anthony Dowell which saw long service had increasingly dated designs, but the choreographic text was second to none; Scarlett grew up with that production as a company dancer and knew just how good it was, but his ‘improvements’ as a choreographer/producer were anything but. True, he kept the Act II Ivanov lakeside Act, the Petipa Act I pas de trois and Act III ‘Black Swan’ pas de deux and Ashton’s Neapolitan dance more or less intact, but pretty much everything else was up for change, and not for the better. In revival, with the producer no more, his concept and choreography seem even more misguided.
Scarlett’s narrative tinkerings, done no doubt to strengthen the storyline, achieve quite the opposite. Out are Siegfried’s tutor and the bonhomie of the court, in a sinister Von Rothbart as the Queen’s Chief Minister – the crucial division between the mortal (Acts I and III) and the supernatural (Acts II and IV) is now gone, and Von Rothbart’s incursion into the world of human beings with his disguised daughter Odile in Act III loses its vital importance. The excision of the Act I peasants who celebrate the young prince’s birthday diminishes the variety of dancing in Act I and the shift away from Siegfried’s self-sacrifice in order to be reunited with Odette at the ballet’s close runs contrary to the musical apotheosis. Scarlett muddies the narrative waters with a beefed-up role for Benno, Siegfried’s friend, who not only dances the Act I pas de trois with the prince’s two younger sisters (a serious breach of protocol surely) but repeats the faux pas in an interpolated and dull trio at the beginning of the ball. Act IV retains its dull ‘new’ choreography, swelling the numbers no doubt of the early-train-home-catchers.
This is in essence a Swan Lake without a soul, well danced, often delightful to look at, but without the poetic lyricism which gives the movements meaning and weight. The costumes are ravishing and beautifully executed, even if their nineteenth-century styling will undoubtedly remind Royal Ballet regulars of Anastasia and Mayerling. The set designs do not help: Act I is the outside terrace of some Mittel European princely schloss, Act III the overblown interior; both overshadow and restrict the dancing, acting less as the setting and more the stone itself. The lakeside design is very unsatisfying, the lake difficult to discern, even if the lugubrious moon which hangs over the action is undeniably atmospheric. The lighting is awful, several notches too low for the lakeside and curiously ‘flat’ on the dancers; in the ball scene, the golden wall behind the Queen’s dais might be impressive, but it reflects light so that any dancing between it and the spectator becomes indistinct.
On first night, Koen Kessels seemed infected by the Russian predilection for wayward tempos, stretching the line out almost to breaking point for the adagio solos and then going hell for leather in ensemble dances.
The Royal Ballet boasts many fine dancers at present, but in this revival, while they do much but communicate little. The lakeside swans are well-drilled and the Act I court ladies dance with graceful épaulement, the national dances are identifiably such, but there is a curious distance between the audience and the performers. In very few are their movements imbued with meaning, and phrasing is sketchy, and this leads to a certain sameness which, if truth be told, is not a little boring. A case in point is the Act I pas de trois which was neatly if unmusically danced by the two female dancers; James Hay as Benno highlighted the difference that musicality and phrasing can make to choreography – his dancing ‘sang’, and thereby made a real impression, leading to loud and enthusiastic applause at the end of his solo. His talent is precious because he is able to take classroom steps and infuse them with texture and meaning, nuance and beauty – there are not many like him. Another such artist is Vadim Muntagirov who as the Prince moved with unforced lyricism, his Act III ‘Black Swan’ solo an object lesson in classical dancing, his physical line aristocratic, his phrasing generous; he adds clear acting and uncomplicated characterisation to his physical accomplishments. Yasmine Naghdi, perhaps the most accomplished of the company’s ‘new’ ballerinas and already a superb Aurora, Giselle and Firebird, stepped in with little notice to replace Marianela Nuñez on opening night, but while her dancing was often beautiful, the characters of Odette-Odile did not travel across the footlights, her white swan was not tragically mournful enough, nor her black sufficiently cruel.
This Swan Lake is too costly to fail, and in fact there is nothing that is seriously wrong with it. The problem is that it is not quite good enough and does not demand the poetry of the dancers which makes what is on paper an absurd story into something of both beauty and wonder. The Royal Ballet has a fine tradition in the ballet, but it is hard to think of Margot Fonteyn and Beryl Grey, Svetlana Beriosova and Antoinette Sibley creating their magic in this current production – it is simply too muddled and too unpoetic.