Since the new Royal Ballet season, 2017/ 18 was announced, what stood out in a somewhat ordinary year was that Liam Scarlett had been commissioned to create a new Swan Lake. Swan Lake is the flag and national anthem for ballet – a work that marries the essential ingredients to create an iconic work of beauty and grace. Anyone taking on the very image and heritage of ballet, must have had to carefully consider the task and be convinced of the abilities of the team around them. However, from the opening moments of the Swan Lake Insight evening, it was obvious to see that Liam Scarlett was going to invest his emotions into this new work. Audiences invest emotions into following our beloved art-form and I feel privileged to be living in a generation that has the opportunity to see works, along with the rest of the world, live and with better than front row seats. The cinema screen will never replace the frisson and thrill of seeing theatre, live, but this is a tremendous time to be a ballet fan because of satellite link-ups, from the world’s greatest stages. Like any fans, we invest a lot, emotionally, with our favourite dancers and empathise with the feelings and sometimes dream, literally, what it must feel like to step onto that vast stage with history and prestige, that a Principal dancer in such a role, even one so experienced and talented as Marianela Nunez, must feel. This is where the magic comes in, being so much in control of your craft, doing your job, although a pretty spectacular one and creating history. For lesser mortals, these feelings haunt our subconscious and disturb our rest but then, that is why we love this ballet, that frisson of danger, the quickening heartbeat of expectation and then those perfectly honed ballet shoes step out with confidence, secure in each other’s arms and a partnership that is flourishing, to be one of the all-time greats. Although in her twentieth year with the Royal Ballet, there could be few nights as filled with expectation and need to deliver, as a new Swan Lake from a choreographer very early in his career without much experience of grand classical work. Odette-Odile is THE ballet role and a new production has not been seen at the Royal Opera House for thirty years and one with much-documented flaws. We can empathise but never really know what this expectation feels like and add onto that, the fact that it is being beamed around the globe in all its’ close-up glory. That said, there is not really any doubt in any of our minds that this performance would have been anything less than magnificent, partnering with one of the most exciting male ballet dancers of this generation, that dreams can become reality, and as reviews from opening night were pretty much lavish in their praise, that Marianela, Vadim and the Royal Ballet were going to be anything other than glorious and I was not disappointed.
I don’t usually write reviews because the professionals do it for a reason! I loved the Dance Europe review by Deborah Weiss that said, “Marianela Nunez, at the pinnacle of twenty years with The Royal Ballet, imbues Odette with a vulnerability that belies her years of experience” and described Vadim Muntagirov, “raised himself into the echelons of the truly great interpreters. A Danseur Noble… he has aristocratic stature of a future monarch”. The evening gets off to a flying start with the Court gathered around Siegfried to do what an Imperial Court does, show off its’ prowess. Bennet Gartside is on malevolent form as pasty-faced but impassive Baron Von Rothbart. Conveying so much but betraying so little emotion, the opposite of what is happening around as the corps of the Royal Ballet set the scene for what is to come. The costumes are just what you would expect a classical ballet to have, they are sumptuous and colourful, the best frocks, of course, are those worn by Elizabeth McGorian’s Queen, who also is just perfect for this type of role, regal and imperious, most of us would love to just have a fraction of her carriage and bearing and she delivers on the mime and performance as well. Her ballroom scene dress had the longest train and she walked down those steps and swished across the stage, so impressively but she is vulnerable though, to Rothbart who asserted his malevolent presence into the Court. Liam Scarlett used the men impressively, in their regal green Imperial uniforms, with soloists in grey. For me, Matthew Ball stood out from this elegant pack for his musicality, presence and technical prowess, if he is not elevated to Principal, I will eat my demi-pointe shoe. That is Swan Lake gripe number one on my list, give the men something proper to do and I loved their strong dancing and the ladies were in lovely cream dresses and were able to show off their own prowess. It was an embarrassment of riches with Principals, Alexander Campbell as Siegfried’s friend, Benno, with freedom to lighten the mood and as always, impeccably clean dancing and fleet of foot. Francesca Hayward and Akane Takada play Siegfried’s Princess sisters, both dancers have unquestionably great technique but as for stage presence and lyricism, it is difficult to take your eyes off Hayward. I admired how a minor stumble, it is live after all, did not in any way affect Hayward but used this to complete an amazing set of solo turns.
Scarlett has set up a rather fast and breathless Swan Lake that leaves you feeling exhilarated and this is carried on through to the White Act. The tempo is set by the orchestra at a quite thrilling pace and there is lots to attract the eye throughout. The swans appear at quite a pace and there appears to be more than I’ve seen dancing this at the Royal Ballet, maybe it is because the scenery for the lakeside is rather spare but it is deeply appropriate. I loved seeing John McFarlane himself, painting the backcloth, the starkness of the moonlit lake made the stage look vast and led us into the world where beauty is trapped by power. To my eyes, there seemed to be a lot more swans than I’ve ever seen at the Royal Ballet and there must have been a conscious choice that because of the prestige of the work, to supplement the ranks. The swans whirled around the stage like they were powered by the furies and they whipped around and through each other, it was a sight to behold, especially when they come forward in the diamond formation and there are about 30 swans advancing. Then our Queen arrives and Marianela truly is Queen of the Royal Ballet, after her twenty years of experience and absorbing the Royal style and this really is her year and her moment and to dance it with a partner that can match her for technique and depth of emotion, in Vadim.
Scarlett uses the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov production for his Swan Lake and wisely leaves the White Act, largely unchanged. What Scarlett has done very well is to draw out the emotion of the piece that can sometimes be overlooked as dancers set out to just show their prowess but this is a real partnership, there is care and there is connection. Marianela is that rare thing that ballet is just so in and part of her body and she is so assured that there is barely a waver and she stands, on pointe, in an unassisted arabesque. Vadim is so full of care for her, he knows what a precious jewel he holds in his hand and the desperate, all-consuming, first love is conveyed between these two dancers. Marianela has not only a very sure technique but she is able to add a nuanced performance as well and a musicality that is in a class of its’ own. She massages the music to get the full breath out of it and will sustain a note and then flick through the next which especially draws the audience into her performance as the most consummate of actors would do. What stops my breath also, is the technique, the drawing of the foot up the shin bone as you are taught but cannot master, lines are exquisite and not forced, a supreme dancer for a supreme dance role. We are also very lucky to be living at a time when this prowess is matched by a Danseur Noble who has that mix of Russian and Royal Ballet training, Slavic soulfulness with English reserve although Vadim’s jumps and turns are executed on a whisper but the technique shows a truly special talent. Liam Scarlett has beefed up the role of Siegfried which is another of my major gripes about previous versions where, quite frankly, he is a bit of a drip. My favourite moment in ballet is the male solo from the Nureyev Sleeping Beauty and some of the dancing in this reminded me a lot of this and Vadim uses his skills to perfection. Siegfried matches Odette for having a true character of his own, rather than just being there to carry his leading lady.
One of ballet’s most recognisable and oft-parodied dances is the pas-de-quatre of the ‘Little Swans’. This was also exquisitely executed, the dancers were so in harmony which they needed to be because of their proximity to each other, it was another highlight moment. There is no messing about with this act, there are no friends lurking and certainly no drunk Tutor or jester around, it is just pure swan with their Queen and the man that they put their hope in to break the curse. Bennet Gartside’s sinister Rothbart is turned into full, bird-man and he appears to draw Odette back into his world of gloom, the drawing back is gloriously represented in very clear storytelling by all. We don’t drift off when the swans are not on the stage with this luscious court. He created an exciting opening act and a story for the characters. The supporting dances are virtuosic and really leads us in anticipatory mood to the Black Swan act. I quite often find myself just wanting to see the legendary 32 fouettes and could just forego the character dances but we are given four foreign princesses and their entourages. The tutus drip in jewels, it is truly sumptuous as befits a hubristic court, taken right out of the Russian history books. The princesses were the finest from the Royal Ballet’s soloist ranks, Melissa Hamilton, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Yuhui Choe and Itziar Mendizabel. Although a cameo role, however, you have to dance up to those tutus and these ladies certainly did. Melissa Hamilton was especially striking and although a background character, her acting shone through in a memorable way that made its way across the Irish Sea to her home fans. The national dances were more credible than they have ever been with striking costumes again that were less pastiche and twee but sumptuous and appropriate. The Neapolitan the only choreography not by Petipa/ Ivanov but Frederick Ashton, had to be seen to be believed by Marcelino Sambe and Meaghan Grace Hinkis for the spectacle of their feet moving at the speed of sound and so cleanly and was nice interlude from the tension and then the Spanish dance of which we caught a glimpse from rehearsal with Tierney Heap in the centre of a heat-wave with a beautifully sensuous dance. This really built to the introduction of Marianela who just blows all the other ladies away and takes charge as number one seductress at the behest of Rothbart. This really is where her musicality comes to the fore, playing and massaging the music and supported by Royal Ballet Music Director, Koen Kessels. It really is masterful, the way she can create the tension in sustaining to the last possible beat of the music and knows where to hold and take from one phrase to add to the other, makes her dancing breath-taking. Of course, Vadim is the dancer to match this power and not to be outshone with jumps that just fly through the air, feet that are perfectly pointed, he allows himself to be swept along and to bring out his prowess to match that of Odile. Until Odette appears and it is too late, he has given his love away foolishly, the curse will be for eternity, the darkness and the black swan had triumphed, lots of swans dressed in black tutus invade the kingdom as they seek to not just enslave Odette and her swans but to overpower this royal household as their only son, Siegfried runs for the moonlit lake.
Not surprisingly, the tempo for this final act is so much slower, the air is pregnant with defeated dreams and hope is laid waste, the swans attune themselves to this leaden atmosphere. Liam Scarlett resurrected the forgotten Act IV. In this act, the ‘big swans’ of Claire Calvert and Mayara Magri created a lovely backdrop and brought us into the hopelessness of the state. A brief taste of the majesty of this act was given to us in the Insight evening. Siegfried races to his Swan Queen, realising his mistake and he finds her, full of total devastation, they come together to perform a soulful pas-de-deux but alas, can’t rescue the situation and Odette looks at Siegfried with such grief that his heart is eked out and reduces the audience to a mess. Rothbart is triumphant as Odette runs for the rocky crags and plunges into the Lake of Tears, Siegfried distraught but no-one is the winner as the swans attack Rothbart and bring him to his end. This was an emotionally appropriate end for a Swan Lake that has put the characterisation back at the centre and giving it real heart and soul again. This is a real story of love and loss, hope and betrayal, a human tale, at its core which makes it such a successful ballet. In a world that has taken a more cynical turn, we seem to yearn for beauty and simplicity and this most complex of art-forms can still renew its’ main heritage works. Created in the 19th century with a message of sacrifice, at its heart, the story manages to keep your heart still beating and racing for a stage, dripping with jewels, not just in sensational costumes but in the dancing and acting. This is a glittering jewel of a production from a Royal Ballet that has had a renaissance under Kevin O’Hare who must be congratulated for being one of the few Directors, at the moment, who seems to have a happy company and creating an atmosphere where talented dancers can excel and knowing where to reward. The future of ballet seems more assured than ever and certainly hope that this mix of the classics along with new work will continue but it is great to see the tutus back and the classics, where they belong. To sum up the power of this work and live broadcasts, enabling places that don’t have their own ballet company to see these glorious dancers and perhaps aspire to be like them, a work colleague whom I happened to meet said that her daughter has not stopped talking about it and it has had that effect on her, you can’t ask for more.