Swan Lake – Ballet in Four Acts
Odette / Odile – Marianela Nuñez
Prince Siegfried – Thiago Soares
The Princess – Elizabeth McGorian
An Evil Spirit / Von Rothbart – Christopher Saunders
The Tutor – Alastair Marriott
Benno – Thomas Whitehead
Pas de Trois – Lauren Cuthbertson, Yuhui Choe, José Martín
Cygnets – Romany Padjak, Bethany Keating, Iohna Loots, Emma MaguireTwo Swans – Nathalie Harrison, Laura McCulloch
Lord Chamberlain – Gary Avis
Six Princesses – Helen Crawford, Melissa Hamilton, Hikaru Kobayashi, Laura McCulloch, Pietra Mello-Pittman, Sian Murphy
Spanish Dance – Vanessa Fenton, Cindy Jourdain, Richard Ramsey, Johannes Stepanek
Czárdás – Samantha Raine, Bennet Gartside, Artists of The Royal Ballet
Neapolitan Dance – Laura Morera, Ricardo Cervera
Mazurka – Tara Brigitte Bhavnani, Francesca Filpi, Nathalie Harrison, Kristen McNally, Henry St Clair, Eric Underwood
Two Swans – Nathalie Harrison, Laura McCulloch
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
The Orchestra of The Royal Opera House
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 4 October, 2008
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
The Royal Ballet season has now opened, and in what better fashion than in a sumptuous production of the timeless, quintessential classic, Swan Lake, a work so packed with wondrous choreography and a fail-safe story that it satisfies balletomanes and first-timers alike.
Well, that is how The Royal Opera House and The Royal Ballet management see it, I am sure, but in many ways this was not the most auspicious beginning to the season. In the first instance, this performance of Swan Lake was the first of 24 scheduled (8 in October and the rest in February and March), which, combined with the 20 Nutcrackers adorning December and January like glittery tinsel, represent a huge chunk of the performing schedule. Add to which a revival of Manon and La Bayadère and you get the picture of a company playing safe with box office, but not exactly creating the most stimulating of fare. Of course all the above are great works and have their place in the repertoire; it’s just we have seen them all rather often over the past few seasons, and there is a danger of fatigue and over-familiarity both on the part of the audience and the dancers. Yes, it fills the House, but Rojo and Acosta in Swan Lake, Bayadère and Manon are all fresh in our memories. In short, apart from the glimmers offered by the odd few performances of mixed bills, it is a dull season ahead of us. Whinge over.
Well not quite, because Swan Lake (here receiving its 919th performance by the company) is still presented in Anthony Dowell’s 1987 staging. In choreographic terms, it is excellent (the company’s performing versions of the classics comprise one of its real treasures) but it looks a mess. Sonnabend’s sets and costumes were over-fussy way back when it was new, the stage festooned with every bauble and bow imaginable, the lakeside a nightmarish concoction in steel and the ball scene un vrai bordel in all senses, the sets all eighties excess and the costumes from some demi-monde bordello. Dowell packs his first Act (the prince’s birthday celebrations) with so much flummery, unnecessary stage business a-plenty and the stage over-filled with mugging extras and so too with the arrival of the guests at the Act III Ball which affords ample opportunity for the walk-ons to get their second or two of fame (I will take one of Siegfried’s hunting bows and personally shoot that ‘cardinal’ from the stalls next time) but which detracts from the story and the dancing. The company must now jettison this production and commission one with simpler, cleaner designs to complement the purity of the choreography. Peter Wright should have a go.
So to the dancing. The company is at present beset with injuries and not a day goes by without news of the next, so it was with no little relief that the scheduled pairing went on as planned. Marianela Nuñez was, quite simply, on stunning form. That she has technique in spades we all know, but this sunny, delightful dancer is now graduating to the deeper roles of the repertoire and, whatismore, she is ready to do so. Her Odette was a true Queen, the sad ruler of her fellow swans, her eyes deeply melancholic, her dancing imbued with a stately grace. This Swan knows Siegfried will betray her but allows herself some moments of happiness and hope before the inevitable. Nuñez tackles the intricacies Odette’s choreography with expansive generosity, judging her phrasing with great musicality and underplaying the ‘swan movements’ – just enough to remind us but without taking us into the world of Animal Magic.
Her Act III as Odile was finely contrasted, hard, and, above all seductive – she used the famous Black Act pas de deux to lure Siegfried into the moment of swearing his love to her and thereby dashing Odette’s hope of salvation. That Nuñez was not quite at her full technical best in this was surprising, and her solo was strangely muted – she was clearly saving herself for the famous 32 fouettés in the coda which nowadays are very rarely only 32; Tamara Rojo is the queen of the spins and sets the record I am sure with doubles and triples. Nuñez needn’t try to copy (for the record she tossed in a triple, settled on doubles and slipped back to singles) and should realise that 32 perfectly executed in time to the music are equally impressive and have a little less of the circus about them. In fact she tries a little too hard in this act, but will settle, I am sure, intelligent artiste that she is. Her Act IV returned us to mournful stoicism about her fate, her dancing heavy with sadness, her resolution to die firm from the outset. A wonderful performance already, and one which will grow.
Her partner Thiago Soares is equally gifted as a creature of the stage and was about as far away from the vacantly expressioned Prince one sees so often – every reaction is there: the wonderment in his eyes at the lakeside, the unfamiliar feel of feather, the slow realisation that she is capturing his heart, the confusion and mounting joy at the Ball, the desperation of the final scene and the realisation that death is the only solution. He partners Nuñez superbly, anxious to show off his ballerina. His dancing will never be that of a true danseur noble, but it matters little: he has developed noble carriage, and his technique is strong enough for the black act if he doesn’t force it – elegant grace will carry the day. He cannot compete with Nuñez in technical terms and shouldn’t try to.
The company around them danced well; I was impressed with the corps de ballet, who had quite clearly been well rehearsed and were bending in the English way far more than we have seen in seasons past – three cheers to the ballet masters and mistresses for that. The national dances of Act III came and went except for the simply delightful Neapolitan from the hugely popular Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera. Here are two artists who fully understand Ashton’s choreography and who are able to flash through it, quicksilver, precise feet and extravagant épaulement. You know dancing is good when a smile breaks out on your face as you watch – I certainly smiled during this little masterpiece.
Feet were a problem for José Martín, who with Lauren Cuthbertson and Yuhui Choe delivered an otherwise delightful Petipa Pas de Trois in Act I. Martín, destined ever to be demi-caractère, simply does not point his feet enough (a real disadvantage for a male dancer) with the result that his double tours en l’air instead of ending in the point of perfection have a little propeller at the bottom. Not classical. Lauren Cuthbertson and Yuhui Choe were utterly delightful in their solos, both deeply musical and Cuthbertson in particular alive to the need to colour and phrase her movement. Choe is a very real hope for the future, thoroughly deserving of her recent promotion to First Soloist rank.
Boris Gruzin in the pit steered a particularly wayward path with the score, opting for extremes of tempo, which, undoubtedly interesting in concert or as a recording, did much at times to sap the lifeblood from certain passages: the Act III Mazurka was dirge-like and taxed the dancers, and the overture started at what must have been half-speed, leading to the fear we would end the evening in the morning of the day after. Gruzin is very much an old school Soviet Russian conductor, eliciting lush strings and punchy brass from the orchestra (the woodwind were having an off night) but playing merry hell with those tempo markings.
In all, a very decent start to the season; but The Royal Ballet is looking decidedly stodgy in terms of programming, and it will take much from the rank and file of the company to preserve their freshness by the time they do their twenty-fourth Swan Lake.