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Dutch National Ballet Swan Lake The Music Theatre, Amsterdam, 24 March 2019, 14:00
Rudi van Dantzig is one of three towering geniuses who have given Dutch ballet its reputation for excellence, The others are Hans van Manen and Toer van Schayk. Van Dantzig and van Schayk collaborated in the 1980s to stage one of the best versions of Swan Lake that I have ever seen.
As I entered the auditorium, I saw a screen bearing a likeness of Tchaikovsky, his name and the title of his ballet in Dutch and Russian. As the house lights faded and the orchestra struck up, the principal characters of the drama appeared behind the screen. The tale of Odette's enchantment by Von Rothbart is sketched out. The screen rose to reveal the palace gardens where Prince Siegfried's coming of age took place. From there until the final act the ballet proceeds in the same way as most other versions of Swan Lake until the last act. There, the story deviates.
According to the programme notes:
"Von Rothbart tries to drive Siegfried away from the lake, but although Siegfried manages to defy him, he drowns in the waters."That appears to be an accident rather than a deliberate sacrifice by Siegfried and Odette to break von Rothbart's spell as in other versions. The drowning is represented by a pale blue sheet of silky material suddenly fanned across the stage. The lifeless Siegfried is carried ashore by his companion, Alexander. The programme concludes:
"In Alexander, Siegfried's ideals will live on."That is how the ballet ends. No epilogue of lovers ascending to heaven on a swan-shaped barque as in the versions with which we are familiar.
Every performance of Swan Lake turns on its lead ballerina. She has to assume two very different personalities in the same work. There are some who dance Odette well but are less convincing as Odile and vice versa. The superabundantly talented Maia Makhateli can do both. She is pure and delicate as Odette and brazen and explosive as Odile. Never have I seen Legnani's 32 fouettés performed with greater aplomb. Her virtuosity is thrilling and her acting was compelling. She was perhaps the best Odette-Odile I have seen since Sibley.
Sibley was partnered in Swan Lake by Sir Anthony Dowell who later created a beautiful version of Swan Lake for the Royal Ballet. Comparisons are odious but Camargo does have a lot in common with Dowell. He is equally graceful and just as strong. His solo in the seduction scene was a thrill to watch emphasized by a single fiddler striking out his tune.
Swan Lake is a struggle between good and evil as personified by von Rothbart. Liam Scarlett portrays von Rothbart as a treacherous courtier as well as a magician. Indeed the costume and makeup department make him look like the real-life head of a nuclear-armed potential adversary. In that regard, he was truly scary. Van Dantzig dressed his evil one in a suit of green which is the colour of reptiles, slime and decay. Jared Wright flapped his wings with menace and paced the floor with foreboding.
Jane Lord, a former principal with the National Ballet who is now with the National Ballet Academy, danced Siegfried's mother. Tall and elegant she exuded regal authority. Her role is pivotal. By insisting on his contemplating marriage and acknowledging his state responsibilities, she started a chain of events that ended with the drowning of her son. The tragedy is that she brought about this catastrophe out of an abiding sense of duty. That prompted home thoughts from abroad about another female leader courting catastrophe as a result of such a sense of duty.
Van Danzig has expanded the role of the prince's companion. The companion is called "Alexander" in this work and the role was danced by Semyon Velichko. Alexander comforts the prince as he bemoans his approaching adulthood and state responsibility. He is with the prince when he is asked to choose a bride. He tries to warn the prince that Odile might not be Odette. Finally, as I observed above, it is he who retrieves Siegfried's body from the water. Benno plays a similar role in David Dawson's Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet (see Empire Blanche: David Dawson's Swan Lake 4 June 2016). Since seeing van Dantzig's work I have been wondering just how far his Alexander inspired Dawson's Benno.
I was pleased to see that many of the dancers whose careers I follow closely were in yesterday's show. Maria Chugai (whom I had featured most recently in Meet Maria Chugai of the Dutch National Ballet on 8 March 2019) appeared with Vera Tsyganova as one of the two lead swans in act two. Chugai also led the Hungarian dance with Dario Elia. The czardas happens to be one bit of the ballet that I know well (see KNT's Beginners' Adult Ballet Intensive - Swan Lake: Day 1 18 Aug 2015). I watched it particularly intently.
There were some interesting little touches in van Dantzig's ballet that I have not seen elsewhere. I have already mentioned the fiddler in the prince's solo during the seduction scene. Here is another. One of the prospective brides breaks from the others and hides. She is coaxed back by one of the other girls. When she dances, she does so with flamboyantly and energetically. On the other hand, no images of Odette fluttered onto the screen during the seduction scene or after the palace is destroyed.
I was delighted to see the pas de six which is often cut from other productions and I must congratulate Tsyganova, Martin ten Kortenaar, Jingjing Mao, Sem Sjouke, Floor Eimers and Timothy van Poucke on their performances. I liked all the divertissements but I think we do the Neapolitan dance better than HNB or, at least, Wayne Sleep did. Here is a clip of Sleep and Rosemary Taylor in that piece. I am glad to see that English National Ballet retains that choreography.
Yesterday's matinee was a stupendous performance that was aptly rewarded by a standing ovation, but not by many curtain calls. Had the show taken place in London there may not have been a standing ovation but there would have been umpteen curtain calls many for the lead dancers and the stage would have been covered with flowers. A bouquet certainly for Makhateli and probably also for Lord and several of the other female dancers who richly deserved them. Amsterdam and London are very close but we have very different ballet traditions. A ripple of applause meets a principal when he or she appears for the first time. We count Legnani's fouettés and explode with applause and roars on the 28th turn - never on the 27th nor the 29th. There was applause for Makhateli but it started just as Camargo got into his stride.
I could not say that this is my favourite Swan Lake. Derek Deane's for English National Ballet is very hard to beat (see English National Ballet's Swan Lake: Kanehara conquers the Empire 25 Nov 2018) and I also love David Dawson's for Scottish Ballet. However, it is certainly up there with them.
This show will continue until 2 June. There are convenient and inexpensive flights to Amsterdam from most British airports. My seat in the centre of row 14 of the stalls cost a mere €87 and that includes the programme. I have paid more than that for the amphitheatre before now. Tariffs for hotel accommodation, food, drinks and public transport are about the same as in Manchester. It would be a shame to miss this show.