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Drew

New Royal Ballet Swan Lake

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I was able to see Liam Scarlett's new production of Swan Lake with designs by John McFarlane during a short trip to UK in June. Dates were dictated by my partner's work, and I was able to see many of the dancers I hoped to see over the course of three performances, but certainly not all.  The production is luxurious, dark-toned, and oriented towards story-telling and drama--as opposed to visionary, fairy-tale beauty.  It occurs to me that some people reading this may have seen the HD broadcast, if not also seen the production live and I would love to read other impressions. Here are some of mine--not all, but the post is already way too long. Obviously I am not very familiar with today's Royal Ballet. I think someone familiar with the company might see certain things differently. 

Choreographically Scarlett is respectful of much of the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake inheritance (though not all), but as best I can judge he in no way tries to recreate a Swan Lake that would somehow be truer to the 1895 production than Dowell's or truer to the foundational British productions that preceded Dowell's. There is something to debate in this approach, but I get to just a handful of world-class ballet performances a year, so I decided to go to the theater in a spirit of openness to what Scarlett and McFarlane had done rather than mentally arguing with it. Which was all the easier as the Royal Ballet is dancing very well and is obviously profoundly committed to this new version of the ballet. As a version of Swan Lake that doesn't try to restore the choreography to a more pristine state and that does put the stager's own imprint on it, it seems to me superior to ABT's or NYCB's.  (Although ABT's more dreamy "romantic-ballet" approach suits me temperamentally, choreographically I don't care for it.) I think Scarlett's ending -- in which Odette commits suicide, freeing the other swan maidens who (in conjunction with her death) defeat Rothbart -- doesn't quite work: some problems seem to me in conception and some in execution. For myself, taking the production on its own terms, that was its greatest weakness.

One way I found myself thinking about what Scarlett had done was that it's Swan Lake by the company that originated Mayerling and Manon--he sets it in a late-nineteenth-century court where the rot has definitely set in. (Dowell's production was also set in the late 19th century, but this one looks very different.) Rothbart in human form is a court advisor who seems to control the Queen, though we--the audience--have already seen him as a demonic sorcerer transforming Odette to a swan in a prologue. The political character of his ambitions seems represented already in that prologue by the way he grabs the "princess" Odette's crown and we see again at the end of Act II (the ballroom scene), that he seizes the crown from the Queen, as if his goal all along had been to create chaos in the court in order to make his move and take over the kingdom. In another detail of added characterization the two women who dance the pas de trois with Benno are Siegfried's sisters.  I thought this touch ended up working well. The pas de trois is situated in a whole familial scenario--the sisters may not share Siegfried's obvious angst (and distrust of the courtier Rothbart), but they ask their mother if they can remain at the celebration to dance; then, after the pas de trois when they are done, their chaperones wrap them up in cloaks and take them inside the Palace garden gates. I loved that moment which I thought really captured their pampered yet stifling world. Siegfried, with marginally more freedom than his sisters, understandably wants out.  There are also no peasants at this celebration--and the men are all decked out in military gear. It's a regimented world--and the Royal's ensemble does more than justice to it with meticulous, unified, and stylistically coherent dancing of a kind to make a lover of ABT (which I still am) weep with joy.

The sets and costumes are at once magnificent and grim ("gothic" is how I have seen Macfarlane's work generally described). I have rarely felt as clearly as in this production--probably never--that the scene by the lake takes place at night. But kudos to David Finn's lighting, because I also felt that I could see the dancers and the choreography and the effect was very evocative. The ballroom is also possibly the most splendid I have ever seen--with a deep central staircase, partly draped by a curtain at the top, that curves down onto the stage: one sees all the guests enter descending down this staircase and later, when they re-enter, the performers of the national dances descend down the staircase, and Odile first appears atop it as well.  The throne side of the stage is dominated by a golden toned wall--that I found a little too shiny when directly facing it--and the rest silvery-grey and, I think, purple toned baroque-type columns and arches, the latter soaring over the scene. Magnificent but again sort of grim in its splendor.

Act I includes the pas de trois and dance with goblets, but the familial tensions and Rothbart's presence give it its own distinctive feel--likewise the absence of peasants. It concludes with a solo for Siegfried--which may not be Petipa-Ivanov but is rather traditional by now--and as he dances it the palace garden behind him morphs into the moonlit scene with a cliff overhanging the lake. The effect is that his solo appears to be a kind of journey. When I first saw it, I thought the darkly moving panels/drops behind the solo were distracting, but I got used to it over three performances and I like the idea that we were seeing him as if on a quest romance into the lake-forest world away from the palace. Act I scene II (lake scene) is the Ivanov choreography, at least as the Royal Ballet has inherited it, with Odette's mime intact, and very well danced. At two of the performances I thought the big swans could have coordinated themselves better and at the third and last performance I attended one cygnet was briefly on the wrong foot, but overall, to my amateur eyes the corps and demi-soloist dancing looked and felt disciplined, musically sensitive, and especially in the final Lake scene powerful. Perhaps more than in other stagings Scarlett brings out how Rothbart (demon Rothbart) controls the swans and of the three Odette-Odile's I saw (Lamb, Nunez, and Osipova) only the last, Osipova, really went for the boneless swan arm effects which made me wonder if Scarlett perhaps wanted that on mute. 

As the ballroom scene opens,  Siegfried is missing and Benno and his sisters seemingly to mollify and/or distract the court give a little reprise pas de trois--I thought this was a great and organic way to get some more classical dancing into the scene, though the music cuts felt a wee bit abrupt. Still basically I loved this. Scarlett also opted to re-choreograph the character dances though keeping Ashton's Neapolitan Dance. From what I read, he added the touch where, when the dancers in the Neapolitan dance toss their tambourines, the tambourines are caught by two court attendants who keep playing them--is this indeed Scarlett?--in any case, this touch worked delightfully every time, but none of the three casts I saw seemed entirely up to the task of lighting up the stage with Ashton's choreography. (Very sorry I didn't get to see Marcelino Sambé who  made a great impression on me when the company visited New York a few years ago and who danced it opening night.)

Insofar as Swan Lake's character dances go back to Petipa it's not clear to me why one should redo them, but allowing that the Royal Ballet's dancers are probably better character dancers than, say, dancers in American Companies I would still say that, in the past I have only ever seen Russian companies make these dances true highlights and therefore I found myself wondering if, perhaps, Scarlett thought "freshening" them for his dancers, by creating them directly on their bodies, might get more lively and effective results. Which likely is true now that the production is new, but may not be the case in 10 years.

How were his character dances? With the glittering gold wall behind them, I found the sequined covered Spanish dancers, a woman and four men, a little much--like a Vegas number--though a strong female soloist helps. But I genuinely loved Scarlett's Czardas which was a choreographic highlight of the evening. Macfarlane's costumes for all of these dances were at once super luxurious and yet rather dark-toned. I had to get used to that but was mostly won over. By contrast the four princesses invited as prospective brides for Siegfried are in classical tutus and each gets a little solo moment during the waltz with the prince--I found the short tutus made them look more "predatory"--almost as if we are seeing them from Siegfried's highly dismayed point of view. Scarlett seems to have directed them to show rather strongly their sense of being slighted when Siegfried says he won't marry any of them. Of course Siegfried then falls for the most predatory option of all -- Odile. Black Swan Pas de deux is intact in its "traditional" version, though Osipova opted out of Fouettes and instead whirled around the stage in a very fast and seemingly effortless manege of chaines and pique turns. In the mime at end, Rothbart plays a particularly central role--insisting Siegfried swear to marry Odile before the Queen blesses their union--I suppose this is traditional. Then the truth is revealed and as Siegfried heads upstage to the image of mournful Odette, Odile laughs (Osipova in particular looked as if she couldn't contain herself), and downstage center as the Queen falls forward, Rothbart grabs the crown from her head. Additionally, as the truth about Odile is revealed, a swarm of black swans floods the stage and seems to be mocking Siegfried as he races upstage towards the image of Odette. I can't decide if I think this is brilliant or kitschy. Probably both, but it is rather an exciting moment. The whole scene is hard for me to describe in proper order; it's rather chaotic and only at the very final chords do we see just one image--the anguished Queen who seems baffled by all of it as she might well be.

Scarlett re-choreographed the final Act. It is not clear to me why Ivanov's first white act is considered sacrosanct and his closing one not so much, but on its own terms Scarlett's choreography has some strengths--it often echoes the imagery of Act II while breaking that imagery up, fragmenting the lines, as if one were seeing the corps de ballet through a kaleidoscope. Odette tells the other swan maidens she plans to kill herself --and they try to dissuade her. Siegfried enters to his magnificent, overpowering music (it always bemuses me that Kevin Mckenzie, a former MALE star, handed that music over to Odette in his staging)--No un poco de Chopin, but to other music evidently not used in the Dowell production (but which I believe Grigorovich uses for Odile), Siegfried and Odette dance a duet in which she is seemingly unable to forgive him even if she would like to do so. There is great footage of Scarlett rehearsing this on the ROH youtube channel and when performed with the emotional urgency he keeps pushing for in that footage, I found it effective.  The rest of the Act establishes Rothbart's continued control of Odette and the swans and, if I followed the action correctly, he organizes things to keep Siegfried and Odette apart--some of the imagery actually for a second made me think of the vision scene of Sleeping Beauty as rows of swans stand between the lovers who run from side to side seeking each other out. Rothbart then seems to attack Siegfried (?), at which moment Odette rushes over to protect him and the power of their love overcomes Rothbart just long enough, for Odette to escape his hold and commit suicide. In the meanwhile Siegfried is overcome by Rothbart and lies unconscious at the front of stage. While he is unconscious,  the corps of swan maidens sort of "attacks" Rothbart -- this is not exactly what it says in synopsis, but that they have been freed from their spell.  Overcome, he heads up the same cliff as Odette, which I disliked the first two times I saw it because it made it look as if HE was going to commit suicide. (The third time, I felt the Rothbart avoided climbing up the cliff in quite the same way so that worked a little better.) He then collapses dead on the cliff and several swan maidens step downstage to encourage Siegfried to rise--he does so, but immediately turns and heads upstage into shadow as if walking into the lake himself only to return a few seconds later with the dead Odette in his arms. I think it's a very awkward moment for Siegfried to disappear into darkness. When he returns carrying Odette, her corpse is in the dress she was wearing in the prologue. At the very end, Odette's spirit appears atop the cliff--in her swan queen tutu--surveying the scene.

I found this all hard to follow--actually I'm still not at all sure my summary above is correct, and though I've read complaints about Osipova's overacting, her intense facial expressions made some of the action clearer to me than it was in other performances. In any case, I don't think Scarlett's approach makes the best sense even on its own terms. For example: if Odette's human self is freed by her death and thus her corpse has its original princess costume, why is her free soul still in swan maiden form? Not that I want her ghost looking like an ordinary princess but the conceptual dissonance got in the way of my enjoying or being moved by the scene. I guess I like the quasi-feminist element of not having Siegfried play hero to the maidens, but Siegfried is perhaps too passive at the end. I also wonder if perhaps the timing of the whole thing is off--ABT dancers may make too much of their suicides, but in this production, I felt I barely had time to notice Odette was on the cliff before she had slipped off of it. However, the scene all made a teensy bit more sense each time I saw it, so some issues I had may simply be due to the fact that it's an unfamiliar production.

That said, the 1895 had an ending of great profundity that exactly fits the music--with a double suicide and the lovers united in the land of the dead--and I'm sorry Scarlett couldn't find a way to integrate that into his vision. Certainly, a surviving, mourning Siegfried feels truer to the sense of psychological reality and drama Scarlett seems to be going for (and recalls Martins' production as well), but I wonder if he will at least tweak this ending a bit in future. Perhaps...perhaps not.

There is finally I think a real question, quite separate even from the issue of choreographic text--as to whether placing the story of Swan Lake in a more recent and in some sense more familiar historical setting, and trying to give political and psychological motives to the characters that might make sense in a historical novel but have less place in a fairy tale is really the ideal approach to Tchaikovsky's (and Petipa's and Ivanov's) Swan Lake. At least, one can say it's an approach that may make sense at the Royal Ballet, and the company seems completely engaged by the world they are creating in this ballet.

I'll add that all three Odette-Odiles I saw were very fine--the purity of Lamb's dancing (with her straight legs, and exquisite proportions) was beautiful and expressive; Nunez' warmth, the touch of sensuality that colors her upper body, and her extraordinary technical aplomb (including fantastic technical razzle dazzle in the black swan pas de deux) made for another excellent Odette-Odile; and I found every moment of her dancing invested with emotion. She also made more emotionally and physically of Scarlett's final Act pas de deux than Lamb and at key moments more than Osipova as well--falling into Siegfried's arms with complete abandon. I found Osipova's performance intense and infused with temperament and, as always with Osipova, completely riveting. That's even vaguer than my other descriptions, but it's hard for me to describe how she put her stamp on everything. In a few passages--for example, the sequence with passe/retire [please imagine accents] in the coda of the first lake scene she was as thrilling and perhaps even as beautiful as any ballerina I have seen in the role--somehow looking taller than she really is for those few seconds, and capturing the image of the Swan Queen, as it were, in metaphorical flight.  Likewise her final diagonal in the coda of the Black Swan had the speed and power I associate with probably the most exciting coda I ever saw danced (Semenyaka). Still, Osipova will never, I suppose, be a swan of Platonic harmonies and Vaganova-infused poetry, and she doesn't try to be, but instead offers an emotionally mercurial characterization that works with this production--though I think it would have worked better with a more experienced, charismatic Siegfried than Matthew Ball. They even had a strange bobble at the end of the black swan adagio so that the adagio's final image was Osipova struggling to stand upright by sort of grabbing onto his arm. In fact, I liked Ball a lot, but he was not a match for her.

Nunez' Siegfried, Muntagirov, was probably the best one I saw -- though I sort of appreciated Hirano's manliness in the role; Muntagirov and Ball were very young and boyish in characterization and didn't do as much growing up over the course of the evening as I had hoped. I wanted to see Dowell-like anguish when these Siegfrieds made their entrance in the final Act. I wanted to see that they understood something about themselves that they had not understood before. Muntagirov is an elegant and personable dancer, though I think he  could afford to be less modest in his self-presentation. His dancing was very good of course...and for his double tours, in the ballroom scene pas de deux, he sort of "doubles" the double tours up, performing two in row with no break or prepatory steps between, then stepping forward to perform two more this way and then finally a third time, two immediately following each other. I have never seen a male dancer do this and (having read about Muntagirov's performance) was prepared to be impressed, but the night I attended he traveled to the side the first two of these "double" double tours, so they looked a bit sloppy and out of control. When he did it entirely in place the third time, it was much more effective.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to see many of the company's dancers in featured roles. Here, I will just mention Fumi Kaneko (whom I saw as a big swan and the Hungarian Princess), as well as Mayara Magri and Melissa Hamilton (both as big swans). Also, Alexander Campbell's boyish Benno made a particularly good impression in the ballroom scene the night I saw him, and there is something quite dramatically compelling about Tristan Dyer on stage--another Benno--that I also remember from the Royal's tour a few years back. Dyer's Benno seemed more mature and more troubled about what was happening around him than the relatively carefree Campbell.

Anyway, I am very happy I got to see this production--it's a shame we no longer live in the era of frequent Royal Ballet tours to the U.S, though I believe Los Angeles gets a visit next year. McGregor though not Petipa-Ivanov-Scarlett.

Edited by Drew
Edited some hours later to correct a dancer's first name.

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One really wishes there were impresarios -- and/or donors -- out there who would make a tour to the U.S. with this production possible. 

(Sheerest luck I got to see this...Mr. Drew's work took him to London which helped make the trip less crazy extravagant. It will be the last world class ballet I see for some time--probably until well into next year--so I'm glad I got to see such a substantive production. And also was able to see the ENB in Sleeping Beauty while I was there.)

Edited by Drew

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I'm out on a limb over this.  I saw the production for the first time last night and totally loathed it, in fact I intend to return the remaining tickets I have.

Dowell's production was an eyesore but the choreographic text was admirable, what I saw last night was the reverse, beautiful appropriate sets and okay costumes but a disregard of the original/RB traditional choreography.  There were changes throughout but the re-working of the fourth act was to me simply an act of hubris and although Ashton also created new chorography for the fourth act, Scarlett is no Ashton.   Only act two remains un-mauled, strange that after the critical disdain of Grigorovich for putting the princesses of Act III on point in his version, Scarlett does the same thing compounding the offence by putting them in tutus also but to little comment.

The dancing was okay with Francesca Hayward giving the best dancing of the night as Siegfried's sister but after years of watching Russian swans I found the RB corps severely lacking, very sad when I remember the stellar corps that existed under Michael Somes.  It seems that only a martinet such as Somes (or Vaziev) can get the girls in shape, but a ragged corps is the least of this productions problems.  Bitterly disappointed.

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4 hours ago, Drew said:

though keeping Ashton's Neapolitan Dance. From what I read, he added the touch where, when the dancers in the Neapolitan dance toss their tambourines, the tambourines are caught by two court attendants who keep playing them--is this indeed Scarlett?--

No, it's Ashton, the tambourines were always thrown to bystanders to play, though I'm not sure if they did it in Dowell's version, I saw it too few times to remember.

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The continued playing by the attendants is Scarlett.  In previous productions with the Ashton dance the attendants caught the tambourines and walked straight off stage.

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4 hours ago, Drew said:

One really wishes there were impresarios -- and/or donors -- out there who would make a tour to the U.S. with this production possible. 

When they do they cinema broadcasts, they usually (though not always) release it on DVD, so we'll hope for that. I won't be able to see this production otherwise. (I'm still wishing La Scala or Zurich would release their Swan Lake reconstruction on DVD...)

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43 minutes ago, variated said:

The continued playing by the attendants is Scarlett.  In previous productions with the Ashton dance the attendants caught the tambourines and walked straight off stage.

No. That's what happened in the Dowell production, apparently, but I and others remember the attendants playing the tambourines in earlier versions. When I raised this point on balletcoforum someone said that his wife had actually asked Scarlett, who confirmed that he was reinstating Ashton's original and the only change he'd made was to slightly alter the rhythm.

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2 hours ago, Mashinka said:

 

Only act two remains un-mauled, strange that after the critical disdain of Grigorovich for putting the princesses of Act III on point in his version, Scarlett does the same thing compounding the offence by putting them in tutus also but to little comment.

I’ve always seen the princesses on pointe including in David Blair’s production, but in soft skirts not classical tutus; I remembered the more radical change Grigorovich made as getting rid of the character dancing altogether. Instead, we get extended variations on pointe—albeit character inflected—danced by the princesses. And goodness knows, the Bolshoi dancers could be sensational in the character dances! 

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Sorry, I meant national dances, the princesses seem now to identify with the specific nationalities in a way they previously did not. In the past there wasn't differentiation.

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