Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet, Swan Lake, Royal Festival Hall, 4 January 2002
This is the first visit of the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet to London, but the reliable box office power of the name of Swan Lake ensured a rather fuller turn out than their earlier offering of The Snow Maiden. Last year it was possible to see at least five different productions of Swan Lake in London (ENB, Royal, Kirov, Cullberg, BRB) and variations and reinterpretations of this most durable classic come our way endlessly. So what was the particular take of this production on the doomed enchanted swan princess and her princely lover ? The printed programme is packed with details about swan imagery and other productions of Swan Lake, but remarkably scant in detail about this production itself. It devotes only a paragraph or two to tell us that the production was made in 1953 by Bourmeister, whose aim was ‘contemporary realism’ , encouraging the dancers to engage with their roles more deeply, and that it returns to the original 1877 version and sequence of Tchaikovsky’s score, not the more familiar rearranged version.
This is perhaps the aspect of the ballet which gives most surprises. Some of the music from Act 3, the ball, seems completely unfamiliar. Acts 1 and 2 together come to more than an hour and fifteen minutes without a break – too long for some of the small children in the audience. I wish I could say this was a pleasant surprise, but I was left with the nagging feeling that Petipa and Ivanov knew what they were doing in their 1895 rearrangement which so many other productions derive from. The overall production is very long – three and a half hours including intervals, though some of this may be attributed to opening night glitches as the company did battle with the limited Festival Hall stage facilities. The length tended to weaken the dramatic impetus – Prince Siegfried departs to go hunting quite early in scene 1, leaving a long sequence of unmemorable dances for the court which do not move the action forward.
Seekers after contemporary realism would also have found themselves disappointed. With one very honourable exception which I will come to later, the acting, what there was of it, was pantomime stuff. Rothbart by the lake is decidedly unscary and rather moth-eaten, and displays no power over the swans. Siegfried (Georgy Smilevski) was rather mannered, but his character remained unclear. This was in part the fault of Bourmeister’s choreography. In Act 1 the prince seems neither clearly happy nor sad, and the inclusion of a pas de deux for him with one of the ladies of the court just before he goes hunting seemed rather wilful – it made his eagerness to approach Odette later look like another bit of skirt chasing rather than a powerful and true attraction.
The production in fact looks rather like other Russian productions, with mechanical swans tracking across the back of the stage for the arrival and departure of the swan maidens, an infestation of jesters (not one but five of them in the ballroom scene), and a happy ending tacked on. The actual narrative is dispatched in a rather perfunctory way, without any mime. The designs are traditional, lush and pretty and this is a very conventional un-messed-about-with Swan Lake - there’s no deep psychological insights or revelatory meaning here. There is well schooled and well presented dancing, but there isn’t the emotional impact the work can have. Bourmeister knew well enough to leave Ivanov’s Act 2 choreography for the swans alone, and this is the production’s strength. The corps are well trained and even if there are minor wobbles, they exude a sense of unity and common purpose which is very satisfying. (The programme gives biographies for five ballet masters, in the same amount of detail as for the artistic director and other staff – something we seldom see in British companies).
Act 2 also brought us Tatiana Tchernobrinkovkina as Odette, by far the best thing about this production. She belonged in an altogether more refined world of feeling than the other dancers and her thoughts seemed the ripple visibly through her beautiful arms. She was a sad and touching Odette, though there was little chemistry between her and her partner. She had a strong stage presence and personality. I found her much more successful as Odette than Odile, which in some ways is a refreshing change – with most of the dancers in British companies it’s the other way round, they are much happier as the glamorous and wicked Odile.
The ballroom scene had some interesting ideas about offering teasing glimpses of Odile to the prince as part of some of the national dances, but this only sporadically worked, not consistently enough to build real dramatic tension. The final pas de deux seemed something of a let down, however, without some of the technical fireworks that usually attend it, with Bourmeister not providing opportunities for his dancers to provide a memorable climax. It seemed that the jesters got more virtuoso opportunities than the leads in some ways, but we don’t go to Swan Lake to see jesters, we go the see the Swan Queen and her Prince.
This Swan Lake has a happy ending, after Siegfried nearly drowns. Rothbart seems to just disappear rather than be defeated, which is a pity – he is a much more foreceful and interesting character in the ballroom scene. Act 4 was again well danced by the corps but it was a curiously unmoving and uninvolving experience. A fine standard of dancing but your eyes don’t mist over. Very popular with the audience nevertheless.