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English National Ballet

'Swan Lake'

ENB's really big show

by Stuart Sweeney

July 17, 2004 -- Royal Albert Hall, London

This was my first experience of arena ballet and overall I was impressed. No less than 400,000 people have seen Derek Deane’s “Swan Lake” for English National Ballet and with its jugglers, acrobats and large-scale effects, it is described by some as an entertainment. However, I think it goes further than that and has distinctive artistic merits, just as Deane’s theatre staging of this classic is one of the best around. In the glorious space of the Royal Albert Hall, the production has minimal scenery and relies on Howard Harrison’s lighting with varying colours and dappled textures. This provides an uncluttered look that allows the dancing to shine and, as with most site-specific works, the lack of the proscenium arch is wholly beneficial.

The Royal Albert Hall’s circular arena inspired Derek Deane to transform the 19th Century reflection symmetries to rotation-based patterns in the main. This reaches a high point in the scenes where concentric circles of swans curl forward on the floor with crossed wrists over their pointe shoes and I can still see this image clearly in my mind. We also see more conventional patterns, with no less than 60 swans at times. The full complement is only on-stage part of the time to avoid clutter and there were only one or two occasions when I would have sent some of them back to the holding areas.

A question mark in my mind before the performance was whether the soloists and small ensemble sections would be lost in the huge space, but generally this was not a problem. Nevertheless, I found some of the latter unsatisfactory. For instance, the First Act pas de trois is quadrupled so everyone around the auditorium has a clear view. However, the complexity of these steps demands a single focus and four soloists performing difficult steps resulted in an over-rich dish. In addition, watching Yat-Sen Chang, on typically exhilarating form, convinced me that he didn’t need three colleagues performing the same steps. Siegfried gets eight Princesses to choose from in the ball scene and still has the cheek to say that none of them will suit.

Several casts were involved in this London season, featuring a strong series of Odette/Odiles, including the ENB Principal Daria Klimentova, long-term guest Agnes Oakes and newcomer to the UK, Polina Semionova, who impressed all the critics. I was delighted to have the opportunity to see a rising star from ENB, Fernanda Oliveira, partnered by the marvellous Jan-Eric Wikström and this combination overcame the problems of the scale and generated the emotional waves we expect from this work. Wikström is a fine danseur noble with a lovely line and strong technical ability. All his dancing is clean and his arms form gentle curves that provide a lovely finish to his performance. Oliveira seemed very confident in his hands and the high lifts were beautiful and spectacular. The young ballerina danced with confidence and grace and was particularly strong in her spins, drilling the famous fouettes into the floor (and with extra quarter turns so that everyone saw her face at some stage). However, her arms tended to be stiff and I remember one moment in Act III when the arm above her head in the swan’s neck shape was at full stretch rather than an elegant curve. Her characterisation as Odette was restrained, yet touching, but this charming dancer needs a more wicked edge to her Odile. Nevertheless, overall Oliveira gave a commendable performance in this taxing dual role. Gary Avis was suitably horrid and over-the-top as Rothbart with a gorgeous cape and huge wings and was booed at the end, which seemed appropriate reward for his rich portrayal.

My guess is that sightlines are excellent throughout the arena and one UK critic reported that her late arrival drove her to the heights of the Royal Albert Hall and the production looked even better from the heavens. I was sitting at the back of the ramped stalls, which gave a decent view of the patterns, and my aisle seat provided close proximity to those dancers who entered the arena via the gangway. At the end of Act I, as Siegfried dashed by, I had to lean away to avoid the risk of being struck by the crossbow – put it down to audience participation.

Public funding for ENB is not as high as for their peer UK companies and with their perpetual touring, always more expensive then performing in a home theatre, financial strain is never far away. So, the 50,000 tickets sold in this run will help them more than somewhat in the coming year. Equally important, many, many people who would normally never attend ballet have seen a fine and distinctive production. I'm sure this won't be the last time we see ENB's "Swan Lake" at the Royal Albert Hall.

Edited by Jeff.

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