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Edinburgh International Festival 2005

Pennsylvania Ballet - 'Swan Lake'

by David Mead

August 15, 2005 -- Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland

George Balanchine once said that every ballet should be called "Swan Lake" because “then people will come.” Well, there may be more than a grain of truth in that, but Wheeldon’s ‘re-imagining’ of the classic tale is one worth seeing.

Although keeping the essence of the story, Wheeldon has re-situated it in a ballet company rehearsal studio in the 1870s, when Degas paintings of ballet dancers were creating such interest. In keeping with the period, Jean-Marc Puissant’s costumes make the piece look like one of those art works come to life.

The weakest part of Wheeldon’s choreography comes right at the beginning as the dancers walk into the studio. It is rather predictable but it does set the scene. Where he scores well is in his use of the corps. If you only have eighteen swans to play instead of the huge herd available to other companies you have to creative. There were times when I could have done with a little less use of canon though. The ballroom scene (here, the gentlemen patron’s party) is also excellent, especially a brilliant, alluring striptease (aka the Russian Dance) superbly danced by Amy Aldridge, who is groped and slowly undressed by the gentlemen patrons who seem to be after that little bit extra for their money. However, while Wheeldon may have changed some things, he has been astute enough to know what he has to leave alone, including all those spine-tingly moments everyone loves so much.

Partnered by Zachary Hench as Siegfried, Riolama Lorenzo was assured and showed nice lines as Odette-Odile. Hench’s grand allegro was especially strong and he is amazingly light on his feet, although perhaps a little lacking in characterisation. In fact ‘light on their feet’ applied to the whole company. What a joy not to hear a visiting troupe clomping around the stage. These swans were so quiet they really could have been in the air.

There are of course reasons for not liking it. It could be argued that the production is not historically accurate. After all, "Swan Lake" was not seen in Paris until 1896, two decades after Dégas’ paintings had created such a storm, but he was still producing such works. And what is historically accurate? Those idealised images of ballrooms, castles and forest lakes that we see all too often? I think not. Given that, does it matter anyway? You could also be upset about new choreography being added and some of the musical sections being moved. Again, providing it is not masquerading as the original, does it matter? If we are saying that nothing can be changed or new influences brought in then we might as well lock many ballets in a museum.

The bottom line is that it works and audiences like it. In the traditions of De Valois, Ashton and Balanchine, Wheeldon has not been afraid to try his skills away from the ballet studio, in musical theatre and on Broadway. He also knows the importance of design, and here the sets, costumes and lighting are all top-notch in stark contrast to what we sometimes see elsewhere. He has developed his skills and taken on board some new ideas while at the same time continuing to respect the theatrical traditions and production values of English ballet. And while this may be an American production, it very much has English values.

The music was provided by Moscow Radio’s Russian Tschaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, who gave it their all, perhaps a little too much at times, and kept things going at a cracking pace. Conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev certainly seemed to be enjoying himself, beaming from ear to ear and applauding everyone in sight at the curtain call. Mind you, it could have been relief as the orchestra had never previously played for a ballet company, let alone in a pit.

In Edinburgh people certainly did come. Proof of that the Festival organisers had a hit on their hands was there for all to see, the ‘sold out’ notices being posted for every performance. A feature of Festival ticketing is that fifty ‘try it’ tickets are sold an hour before every curtain up, price just £6. The demand was incredible. Thursday was cool and rainy but by 3.00pm there was already quite a queue on the pavement and the following day there was people there by 12 noon. I’m not sure that Edinburgh has ever seen anything like it for ballet.


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