Swan Lake ‘in the round' has been performed for 7 seasons at the Royal Albert Hall since its conception in 1997, so this year marks its 20th anniversary.
It has also been seen in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide to record breaking attendances for ballet in Australia. In all, Derek Deane's Swan Lake has been seen by more than 750,000 people.
What a thrill it was to see up to 12,000 people, night after night, filling the Rod Laver tennis arena in Melbourne… to watch a ballet!
Deane's production is on such a large scale that touring becomes near impossible.
There has been an enormous amount of interest from promoters to tour the production but unfortunately it is a very expensive ballet to tour as there are so many people involved. In the present financial climate, it is hard to find the finances to support long tours. I am being asked all the time when is the production going to be seen again outside the UK.
I asked him how this unusual, but highly successful, version came about.
I came up with the idea for Swan Lake ‘in the round' when, as Artistic Director of English National Ballet, I was invited to take the company into the Royal Albert Hall for a dance season.
I went to the venue and saw that the public seating was all the way around the hall. Ballet had been performed in the Royal Albert Hall before, which I had never really enjoyed, so I was determined not to follow suit and wanted to do something different and new.
His solution was to fit the ballet to the performing space and not the other way around.
I decided that we should ‘grand scale' the most famous ballet of all and present it in a way that would excite a new audience and bring new people to the ballet that would not necessarily go to see the art form! It proved a huge success with almost 5,000 people per night filling the house.
Something which it has continued to do each season, with a standing ovation after every performance. Certainly, much of that applause was for the dancers, but a great deal was for the production which, with its 60 swans a-swimming, makes for an awe-inspiring experience.
However, ‘in the round'? Ballet, in the round? Ballet is designed to be seen from certain viewpoints, surely.
In creating the production, I didn't find anything particularly difficult in the staging as I believe that a dancer's body is as beautiful from the back as it is from the front. Obviously, one had to be careful with certain angles but then I would keep the movements continuous so that the audiences' eyes were not resting for too long on any one image.
With a myriad of swans on the move, Deane managed to drill them to attain a sense of uniformity in the movements. 60 bodies moving as one?
Even with great changes of patterns and shapes the corps de ballet really did move as one but still kept ‘breathing' in their movement to enhance the emotion of those acts. For me the actual choreography is a means to an emotional climax. It has always been important to me in Swan Lake that the swans are almost the breathing heart of the Swan Queen. It is even more important to show emotionally how they feel, that they cannot survive without her. They are also there to protect her as much as she tries to protect them.
There was an intimate opportunity to see Deane working on the ballet during the BBC's fly-on-the-wall documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy, back in 2011. Judith Mackrell, writing for the Guardian in a piece comparing the television programme to Darren Aronofsky's horror-en-pointe flick, Black Swan, wrote,
It found, in the choreographer Derek Deane, who was staging ENB's production, a bully to match Aronofsky's gothically sadistic ballet master, played by Vincent Cassel. Principal ballerina Daria Klimentova was the prime victim, as Deane – unable to work with his first-choice dancer – petulantly lambasted her technical flaws, her lack of personality, even her age.
though she added,
It was funny to witness the reactions of her partner, Vadim Muntagirov, who claimed he'd suffered far worse back in Minsk.
Deane has no regrets over his working methods, nor that there was a camera there to capture it all.
I think that the documentary about the process of getting Swan Lake to the stage was extremely positive in expressing the difficulties and hardships that dancers have to go through to reach their peak.
Though he concedes,
I will admit that I am probably not the easiest person to work with.
However, in a comment which recalls sentiments expressed by Barbra Streisand when she made the film Yentl, he says,
I am an extremely dedicated person and have a deep passion for my art form and only want to work with people who have the same desire.
Maniacally perfectionist Streisand, who was on the set before most and left after many had gone home, was thrilled to find a similar dedication in her hard-working British crew after her disappointment working in Hollywood.
I want dancers who will put their heart and soul into their work and go to the extreme, emotionally and physically, to achieve their goals. My motto is, “It is such a short life… Don't waste time!”
I have very little time in the studio for negativity, excuses, a lack of musicality — a huge problem in the dance world today — and I only work on the premise of getting the best out of a dancer, whichever way I can: every dancer is different, every dancer is an individual.
It is important to understand the type of artist that one is working with. It was wonderful working with the young Vadim Muntagirov who was so hungry to learn. Such an intelligent young man and, thankfully, musical. Having worked closely with such directors and artists such as De Valois, Ashton, MacMillan, Balanchine, Sibley, Dowell, Makarova, Haydée, Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Fonteyn, Fracci, Zakharova, Vogel, Semionova, Cojocaru, Coté, Muntagirov, and so many others, I feel it has given me a great insight on how to draw the best out of dancers.
Directors and choreographers have always preferred one dancer over another: look at Balanchine with Farrell, Macmillan with Seymour, Ashton and Fonteyn, Cranko and Haydée… at that time, mine was Semionova. It was a great disappointment when she was unable to dance on the first night but ‘the show must go on' and I was very willing to help the next cast as much as I could.
I found it extremely difficult, though, to continue to work with a dancer who had danced the ballet on many occasions but still didn't seem to know the direction, timing or musical sense or even the right choreography. I will give every hour of my day to help but eventually there is a limit to one's patience. I find it very difficult and frustrating to work with dancers who cannot hear music; a terrible frustration for any choreographer… for me the music and the dance should be as one.
Carlos Acosta and the ENB's current Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, starred in Deane's Romeo and Juliet, and Rojo featured with Guillaume Côté in Deane's Strictly Gershwin, both produced for the round stage of the Royal Albert Hall. Any more on the way? La Bayadère? Giselle?
If a subject came up that was interesting enough then I would certainly consider it. I'm looking more at new creations for the proscenium theatre at the moment. Last year I created a new ballet around the story of Hamlet which I really enjoyed.
I loved creating Strictly Gershwin, which was also a huge success for ENB, although they have now dropped it from their repertoire. It is now performed by Queensland Ballet and next year is going to be performed by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Tulsa Ballet.
Strictly Gershwin was criticised for being “too commercial” to be taken seriously as an evening of dance, but as I watched packed theatres cheering and giving the production standing ovations, it did put a bit of a smile on my face. It was something very different to the usual ballet productions that are expected and I hope to create more productions that will bring in new audiences and let people see how enjoyable ballet can be.
Hopefully Romeo and Juliet can also return to the Royal Albert Hall at some point as that was another production that I really enjoyed creating and it was lovely to work on the revival with two artists of the artistic calibre of Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo.
What's up next on Derek Deane's calendar?
O my goodness! A lot of time spent on planes!!!
I go to Denver and Tulsa in November to do the casting for Romeo and Juliet and Strictly Gershwin followed by getting myself to Zagreb first then to Shanghai to oversee rehearsals of The Nutcracker. January and February are taken up with Romeo and Juliet and Strictly Gershwin in America followed by a new Sleeping Beauty for Shanghai Ballet in April.
In July, I am off to beautiful Naples — Bella Napoli! Teatro San Carlo, such a beautiful theatre — to revive and rework my production of The Lady of the Camellias which premieres in September. I'm really looking forward to that… not a tutu in sight! A new ballet is also in the pipeline for Sarasota Ballet.
So the work continues.
Yes, the work continues…
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.