Jonathan Gray sees the return of English National Ballet’s production of Swan Lake at the London Coliseum
|Company||English National Ballet|
|Date||12 January 2023|
You don’t have to wait long for Swan Lake to return to the repertoire here in the UK. Last year, The Royal Ballet presented a lengthy run of Liam Scarlett’s highly unsatisfying production at the Royal Opera House, and later this month Birmingham Royal Ballet will be taking Peter Wright’s staging of the ballet on a regional tour. Just opened at the London Coliseum is Derek Deane’s 23-year-old version of the Tchaikovsky classic for English National Ballet (ENB), which sees a number of cast changes in the leading roles of Odette-Odile and Prince Siegfried, as well as appearances by international guest artists, until it closes on 22 January.
The company is currently in a state of flux, with the previous director, Tamara Rojo, now in post at San Francisco Ballet, and the artistic director designate, Aaron S Watkins, not due to step into his role until later in the year. Casting decisions, therefore, must have been made by Deane and associate artistic director Loipa Araújo, and, judging by the programme notes, the staging has been supervised by Deane (himself a former director of ENB), lead principal Fernanda Oliveira and répétiteur Mayumi Hotta. These performances of Swan Lake were dedicated to the memory of another former ENB director, Beryl Grey, herself an acclaimed Odette-Odile, who died at the age of 95 on 10 December last year.
If you look below the surface of Peter Farmer’s chocolate-box set and costume designs, you will discover that Deane has crafted a straight-forward version of the ballet that draws heavily on the productions in which he performed with The Royal Ballet. (Incidentally, he was my own very first Siegfried, way back in 1979). There is much of the original ballet by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov included here, as well as some dances – the Act I Waltz and the Act III Neapolitan – choreographed by Frederick Ashton, but Deane himself has also devised new choreography, in particular in Act IV, which is functional but hardly revelatory. He tells the story well, and pushes the drama forward, but rarely is the production dramatically and emotionally involving.
The ensemble on opening night looked as if it had been well prepared and well drilled, with the corps de ballet of swans impressively precise. I wish, however, they had performed with more lyrical fluency than they did, particularly in their backs and arms, which meant the dances often had a staccato quality that was more prosaic than poetic – I was looking for a greater sense of breadth and expansiveness from all of them.
Except for the wonderful Rhys Antoni Yeomans, who gave a terrific account of the Neapolitan that was full of light, shade and Ashtonian fun, this “staccato” quality could also be seen in the performances of the principals and soloists. Aitor Arrieta’s Siegfried took to the stage with authority and a formidable technique that saw him soaring into the air in an impressive sequence of leaps and pirouettes, and immaculately landed tours en l’air, yet the stiffness in his torso and back sometimes made him appear jerky. Still, this was a notable performance from a talented young dancer who was recently promoted to the rank of principal.
There was, however, little chemistry between him and his Swan Queen, fellow principal Emma Hawes, who is slightly taller than Arrieta when she is standing en pointe. She was a cool Odette, elegant and contained, who utilised her eyes to dramatic effect and used her long limbs eloquently. I was pleased Hawes played down the “vampish” elements to the character of Odile in which other ballerinas often overindulge, so that instead she appeared more a smiling spirit conjured up by Rothbart’s evil magic to entice Siegfried and less an overtly malign temptress. Hawes made a few little slips in Odile’s solo but brought off a satisfying series of fouéttes in the coda of the pas de deux – single fouéttes performed en place can be much more impressive than doubles, triples or even quadruples that travel all about the stage. This young ballerina has all the right qualities to become an exceptional Swan Queen; let’s hope she is given plenty more opportunities to explore and find her way into this wonderful role.
Less enjoyable, for me at least, was the constant “flapping” wings of the evil Von Rothbart throughout the evening. As played by James Streeter, this proved highly irritating and distracting; I kept wanting to tell Rothbart to, “Calm down, dear!”
Conductor Daniel Parkinson set a brisk pace to Tchaikovsky’s music that helped make much of the dancing more exciting, especially in the Neapolitan and the Mazurka. It was a shame, though, that the first-night audience appeared to have so little regard for the music that it noisily chatted all the way through the introduction to Act II, Tchaikovsky’s most famous “tune” for the ballet. The Act I pas de trois was given an uplifting performance by Julia Conway, Katja Khaniukova and Erik Woolhouse, and, amongst several other cast members, my eye was constantly drawn to the dancing of Precious Adams who, through the evening, appeared in the Act I Waltz, as a Lead Swan in Acts II and IV and as a Fiancée in Act III. She is a big talent and should be getting more opportunities than she does from ENB in classical roles.
I will be back to the London Coliseum to see further cast changes in ENB’s Swan Lake – watch this space for an update.