Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of the Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake is as eye-opening as was his version of The Sleeping Beauty: it is fresh, it is vital, it effectively tells a story and communicates right to the heart with both joy and pathos.
Going back to Vladimir Stepanov's original notations has brought forth something stimulating and rich in choreographic detail, not a dusty museum piece to be glanced at and put away again. Taming the acrobatic side of modern ballet practice reveals some exciting nuances and allows for greater speed. The luxury of having Michail Jurowski in the pit was matched by returning to Tchaikovsky's tempi which gives an impetus to the music in the first act polonaise and third act character dances, but also brings a haunting, spine-tingling close to the ballet when the curtain falls to the merest whisper from the orchestra. This may be the first time that a Swan Lake has brought tears to this observer's eyes.
Equally moving was Odette's arrival at the lake in the final scene: no dramatically flamboyant arm flapping here, but we see an incredulous heart-broken woman imploring her friends to help her. The looser hair and a long lock which falls in front of the shoulder gives all the swans a very human presence. Designer Jérôme Kaplan has copied their hairstyle, knee-length tutus and little white caps directly from the original designs; the white-feather headdresses only appeared at the beginning of the 1900s.
Another return to the original is the dark, but not black, costume for Odile – not a feather in sight. She is not a ‘black swan', but Rothbart's daughter, and their complicity is cruel. We also meet Siegfried's friend Benno, who joins in the pas de deux rather like a squire aiding his knight. In fact, Kaplan's Pre-Raphaelite medieval inspiration is seen in his designs for the ladies and men (in armour) of the court and the dresses for the six waltzing princesses in the third-act ball. Kaplan's costumes are splendidly luxurious, especially those for the four character dances, though I didn't understand everything in his approach to the scenery, like the plastic-looking wall and tacky climbing plants which dominate the first scene. The gas flames in the third act were a nice atmospheric touch. The lake scene was anonymous but functional. The whole was beautifully lit by Martin Gebhardt.
Ratmansky has, thank heaven, embraced pantomime and clear-to-read storytelling. If the dancers are not embarrassed about doing it then the audience will not uncomfortable either. When it is big, bold and elegant, it is like dancing without moving your feet, and I would defy anyone to fail to follow the story of this Swan Lake.
He has also used, as in Beauty, the softer curves of the arms and legs, though it is not a weak effect, far from it. The first act's high reaching port de bras by Prince and court, open with joy as though throwing petals in the air. The Prince, Siegfried, is a happy soul… no wandering around the palace petulantly. Pushing épaulement to its limits, Royal Ballet style, gives a wonderful dynamic to the upper body and animates the twenty couples for the waltz and polonaise so that every inch of the stage seems to be shimmering with movement. Add in stools – yes, sixteen, allowing the dancers to pop up and down like jack-in-the-boxes or to use them as pedestals – baskets of flowers, ribbons and a maypole and the result is a very busy stage. The choreographic design, however, is never lost, and the hard-working corps present some very ornate and pretty stage pictures.
Odette's fast turns with Siegfried are supported with just one hand, which makes the move noble instead of spinning her like a top for some circus trick. Odile, on the other hand, does ‘simple' 32 fouettés giving her an air of determination: she's telling us that she's going to get the man. Also at the end of her pas de deux, she does a series of playfully arrogant échappés, daring anyone to defy her.
Glorious too is the pas de trois, and Ratmansky here has given Benno the male part allowing him to let off steam with some flashy footwork, here finely accomplished by Christian Fagetti. He also lets Siegfried have his moment – even if he doesn't dance as much as in some other versions, he is certainly very present dramatically – in the third act or ‘black swan' pas de deux, where in 1895 the variation went to an unnamed character. Timofej Andrijashenko was assured and masterful, with impressively virile leaps during the manèges and a princely presence too.
However, the revelation of this cast was Nicoletta Manni as Odette/Odile. She danced the roles in the Nureyev version, one of her first big opportunities at La Scala, soon after joining the company in 2013. She was, frankly, a little wooden, though, it must be said, it was her debut in the role. The difference between then and now is immense. I have lauded her strong technique and fearless approach in the past, but last night a true ballerina shone through. She was delicate and emotionally vulnerable in her approach to Odette, and her facial expressions were echoed touchingly by the movements of her arms and hands, which have never been so communicative. In the final act, she collapses like a rag doll into Siegfried's arms. Her Odile was perfectly judged: sly and scheming yet always in a refreshingly human way, never a demon en pointe.
Maybe Ratmansky's most significant achievement in this Swan Lake is restoring Petipa's first act corps de ballet ensembles and some ‘old-fashioned' technical touches which shouldn't be forgotten and can only add more colours and shades to a dancer's palette. But when it comes down to it, he has restored, with some clear and rational storytelling, the ballet's heart.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.