Monday, 13 June 2016

Swan Lake in the Round

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English National Ballet, Swan Lake, Royal Albert Hall, 12 June 2016

Watching ballet in the Royal Albert Hall is quite a different experience from watching it on a proscenium stage. Even though the performance space is so much larger it is in many ways more intimate. I think that may be because the audience surrounds the dancers who often down the aisles between them to enter the stage. Swan Lake is particularly well suited for arena performances because much of the action takes place around a lake which is by definition a space enclosed by land.

The scale of the production is staggering. According to the programme there were 120 dancers of whom 60 were swans. There were also 80 musicians in the orchestra. Many of the dances doubled in size. There were 8 cygnets and not just 4. The pas de six became a pas de douze. There were 8 princesses, 8 Spanish dancers and 8 Hungarians.

The reason for the scaling up was that those dances would have been lost to at least half the audience had they been performed with the usual numbers in the traditional way. However, there are some roles that cannot be scaled up. Clearly you can't have 2 Siegfrieds, 2 Odette-Odiles (except for Odette's 'don't be such a blithering idiot' bits of the black act which I shall mention later) or indeed 2 Rothbarts. For those roles the company needs to deploy dancers of exceptional versatility who are thrilling to watch and capable of filling the massive space single handed. All the dancers I saw yesterday met that requirement.

The key to the success of this ballet - unless you rewrite the story as Sir Matthew Bourne and David Nixon have done (see Wikipedia Swan Lake (Bourne) synopsis and Swan Lake Story on the Northern Ballet website) - is a strong Odette-Odile. She must be ethereal, delicate and almost fragile in the second and fourth acts and an only two human vamp in the third. Now what I perceive to be the difficulty for the ballerina - and it may well be that I am quite wrong about that - is that human personality leans towards one or the other and if you lean one way it is not easy to project the other.

One ballerina who can pull it off is Erina Takahashi.  I saw her dance Odette-Odile at the Palace in Manchester on the 9 Oct 2014 (see What Manchester does today 10 Oct 2014). Here is what I wrote about her then:
"Yesterday was the first time I had seen her (or at any rate the first time I had noticed her) and she impressed me considerably. She was a very convincing Odette in the prologue and second act - so delicate and feminine - and I couldn't imagine her as Odette but the lady is tough as well as beautiful and she is also an accomplished actor. She danced the seduction scene even more brilliantly than she had danced Odette."
I had forgotten that I had written those words for this is what I tweeted at 15:59 yesterday
Immediately after seeing Act III I wrote:

On the bus to King's Cross I concluded:
I have never really believed that Siegfried could have been taken in by Odile's appearance because she moves and behaves so differently from Odette. I think he was so dazzled by Odile, and in particular by her 32 fouettés, that he temporarily forgot about Odette even when she fluttered in to warn him not to be such a blithering idiot. Had it been mistaken identity the spell could have been undone but as Siegfried's promise was intended it could not. At least not unless he jumped in the lake or fought Rothbart or something.

My view of Siegfried - any Siegfried - has recently been revised by David Dawson (see Empire Blanche: Dawson's Swan Lake 4 June 2016). Siegfried is a blundering adolescent. Yes he really is impressed by silly things like cross bows.  He falls in love with visions. He makes promises he cannot keep. Yet he cannot be ignored for he is heir to the throne.  However, great virtuosity is required of him. He must thrill us in the third Act with his leaps and his turns in the air.  One of the most thrilling dancers in English National Ballet who filled that bill exactly was Yonah Acosta.

The third major player in the story is Rothbart.  He must also thrill and also chill even though he has no great solo. However, he does have a cape to wave or rather wings to flap and his appearances were heralded by flashing lights across the auditorium and the antics of his skull headed acrobatic acolytes. Yesterday his role was performed by Fabian Remair whom I had last seen as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (see Manchester's Favourite Ballet Company 28 Nov 2015). He had impressed me then and he did so again yesterday. A first soloist with the company he is clearly a name to watch.

There were fine performances also by Michael Coleman as Siegried's tutor and the master of ceremonies, Jane Haworth as Siegfried's mum (or the queen) and Shiori Kase and Vitor Menezes. Everybody in the cast did well. Although she did not dance a solo role on this occasion I am always delighted to glimpse Sarah Kundi, one of my favourite dancers, in any role. She was in the Spanish dance and I gave her an especially loud clap as she passed my box at the end of her piece.

This year the swans included Natasha Watson and the guests at Siegfried's party Andrew McFarlane who trained at Ballet West (see A Cause for Double Celebration at the Robin's Nest 9 Feb 2016). I could not recognize Andrew but I do know Natasha and I uttered a little "brava" for her at the end of the show. I am so proud of her and also of Andrew. Natasha is a Genée  medallist and was the only British finalist in Lausanne in 2015. She is on a trajectory to the top and I wish her all the best.

I should say a word about the expanded orchestra.  They played well.   Indeed rarely have I heard the English National Ballet Philharmonic play better.  I had expected Gavin Sutherland to cinduct them but instead Helena Bayo appeared. It was the first time I had seen her but I hope it will not be the last.  Often my eyes turned to her from the stage for her body was expressing the music too just as beautifully as any of the dancers.  She directed the musicians with passion but also with sensitivity. The result was a most delightful rendering of one of my favourite ballet scores.

Some things have to be done differently in the round.  A real live dancer who is obviously not Takahashi has to represent Odette during the seduction scene. The ballerina could not lead the admirable Helena Bayo onto the stage. All that could be done was a reverence by the lead dancers and a kiss from the conductor blown back to them.  There were also monitors around the auditorium with the camera fixed on the conductor. I surmise that was for the benefit of the dancers.

Although I enjoyed yesterday's performance tremendously I do have reservations.  It is spectacular but at times I felt the emphasis was on the spectacle - the flashing lights, the acrobatics, the costumes and the sheer numbers on the stage - rather than on the dancing.  It is obviously more expensive to stage than a proscenium show because the ticket prices were high even for London.  However there were plenty of people able and willing to pay the price for the Albert Hall was packed to the gunnels. In The Arena Phenomenon in the programme noted that the novelty and appeal of ballet in the round attracts audiences who do not regularly attend conventional performances. The absence of a ripple of applause when the principals appeared or at turn 28 of Odile's fouettés, someone from my box shouting out "He's behind you" when Rothbart took his curtain call to mixed cheers and boos, the middle age man in the box next to mine sticking his fingers in his mouth and whistling his appreciation at the end of Act III and the eyes of so many on the synopsis page of the programmes suggested that was indeed the case. Nothing wrong with that of course if ballet in the round inspires a love of ballet generally, but it is an indulgence which, like chocolate, should be savoured only sparingly.

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