National Ballet of Cuba, “Swan Lake”
Coliseum, London, 4th April 2010
Cuban ballet dancers are famed and feted around the world, and the recent UK tour of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba proved a revelation, with superb artists putting their own stamp on Mats Ek among others. So, National Ballet of Cuba's “Swan Lake” promised to be a treat.
Alicia Alonzo's production dates from 1948 and has a number of distinctive features. The opening party scene is hectic and shows peasants, rather than the usual mix of court and town, celebrating the birthday of their much-loved Prince. When the Queen appears, she immediately disapproves of this mixing with the lower classes before the usual clash over a suitable marriage partner – no birthday crossbow for this Siegfried. The Tutor and Beppo have less to do than in most productions and the emphasis is on dance with the pas de six, pas de trois and busy ensemble work. Act II is traditional and the main innovation for Act III is the late arrival of Rothbart and his daughter just before the Grand Pas, danced with only the three characters on-stage. This change allows virtually no time for the relationship between Odile and the Prince to develop, nor for our anticipation of the climax. Act IV becomes a short Epilogue and follows the Soviet happy ending model, but with Rothbart simply pushed into the wings and the restoration of the original castle and court, rather in the manner of “The Firebird”.
Of course, there are any number of variations on the “Swan Lake” plot and I have no problem with that, but particularly in Act III and the Epilogue I didn't find that Alonso's innovations add value. With the exception of an atmospheric lakeside setting for Acts II and the Epilogue, the sets are ugly and cluttered, and the tutus are cut high at the back producing inelegant views at the best of times.
All this could be forgiven if the dancing was of top standard, but often it seemed raw or mechanical. Matters were not helped by tempi from conductor, Giovanni Duarte, so slow that frequently I wanted to get up and give it a push. The opening night was danced by Carlos Acosta guesting with a familiar partner from the company, Viensay Valdés, and on the basis of past evidence I'm sure they brought colour and élan to their performances. I was interested to gauge the depth of the company's talents and saw Elier Bourzac and Anette Delgado as the leads - both Premier Dancers, the highest level in the company. Bourzac has an attractive stage personality, jumps with soft landings and is an attentive partner. Delgado has the signature attributes of the company: rock-solid balances and furious spins. But we saw little beyond steely technique and scarcely any chemistry with her Prince. Of the Act I dances, only Gretel Morjon impressed me with fluid, elegant movement in the pas de trois and the three men in the pas de six regularly failed to dance together. The swan corps were impressively synchronised, but with a lack of high quality finish. The four little swans reminded me of a wind-up toy with sharp movements but little else. Throughout the evening, the women cranked their wrists parallel to the floor, a stylistic point which for me breaks the natural line.
Nevertheless, there were compensations: Yonah Acosta, as a relatively unobtrusive Jester, jumped out of his skin and hammed it up amiably; the Spanish dance with Yanela Piñera and Alejandro Virelles abandoned most of the mock Iberian gestures that can make it into a farce and provided accomplished ballet steps that worked well with the music.
Overall, I am struggling to remember a “Swan Lake” from an international company that engaged me so weakly. I am well aware of the dangers of generalising from a sample of one, my impression was of a company that badly needs a firm hand to raise the artistic standards of the company beyond technical accomplishment; to add a finish to the raw ability of many of the younger dancers. Alicia Alonso well deserves her place in the first rank of ballet's high achievers and she would only add to her standing by making way for a successor.