LAST EDITED ON 25-Jun-99 AT 10:04 AM (GMT)
The swans are back en masse at the Royal Albert Hall, as ENBís in the round production of Swan Lake returns, at the end of a worldwide tour. It was here that Derek Deane first staged his arena production two years ago. Thereís been quite a bit of tinkering with it since then, not all of which necessarily seems to have been an improvement. Of course, staging ballet in the round with a corps of sixty swans isnít going to please everyone (and it hasnít), but for me the production does preserve something of the essential magic of Swan Lake. Oddly enough, the thrills donít necessarily come from seeing a corps of sixty swans, well drilled though they are: it is individual performances that are compelling.
The venue does require performances from the principals of sufficient scale to project across the vast auditorium. In the initial run in 97, I saw Assylmuratova and Bolle as the leads, and they undeniably had the presence and power to pull it off. Scheduled cast for this performance was Thomas Edur and his wife Agnes Oaks: she has been out for some time with injury, and the scheduled replacement was guest Margaret Illman: actually on the day, without any explanation, it was ENBís own Lisa Pavane. You can always rely on ENB casting for a few surprises.
Last summer I had seen Edur and Oaks in the pas de deux from Giselle. Usually, I donít much care for excerpts wrenched from their context, but these two were stunning together, and Edur became my candidate for the ideal Siegfried in Britain at that moment. I wasnít disappointed: he is a perfect prince, noble in his every gesture. He knows how to stand still and yet retain command of the stage. Sometimes the simplest things he does can be incredibly effective: when he first slowly bows to Odette, itís as if youíve never seen anyone do this before, or realised just what it meant.
Much depends on the prince in this production. He is a very isolated figure - no Benno or other friends here, he remains quite isolated through the dances of Act 1 and goes hunting alone. Edur does not cut quite so vulnerable a figure as Bolle did before, but he remains a melancholy and troubled figure. After all the massed dances of Act 1 (the pas de trois quadrupled into a pas de douze), the most impressive part is Siegfriedís meditation, left alone, on his motherís instruction to marry. Edur framed with total clarity the sequence of Siegfriedís thoughts here - imagining himself meeting some ideal woman and then drawing back, disillusioned. It was beautifully expressed and exquisitely danced, though itís not until Act 3 that Edur really gets called on to demonstrate technical fireworks. And then he certainly does. Those wide open spaces of the arena provide a better showcase for male dancers than for the women - the great circular sequence of jumps in Act 3 was truly spectacular.
Lisa Pavane is a very experienced dancer. She has clearly worked out her approach to the character: her Odette is deeply melancholy and fatalistic, her Odile sensual and sharp. The performance would have sat better in a more conventional production: a little more regal grandeur as Odette would suit the RAH better, though she was very touching in Act 4. Iím not sure if sheís danced with Edur before in this role, but he is an admirably sensitive partner. Technically her performance was clean without being particularly flashy.
There are a few changes in the production: the ramps which led up from under the stage have gone. I rather liked those: somehow one had the impression that there was a limitless supply of swans down there of which we were only seeing the first few waves. The orchestra is now higher up than before, on a kind of castle, and dancers enter from underneath it. Odette now appears in Act 3 by bursting through a curtain here, right into a group of courtiers, including the Queen, who all obviously see her. This makes no sense. I far preferred the previous arrangement, where she appeared very high up (in the organ, I think) - it was a more dramatic use of the venueís possibilities, such as they are.
The in-the-round presentation seemed to have become rather more smooth by now: previously you were aware very much of the dancers deliberately turning to present to this quarter of the auditorium and then moving on to the next. The overall flow now seems to be better and less self conscious. Whether this is as the result of the extensive touring of the production, or just because I was looking sat it from a different angle, Iím not sure. Your perception of the work will be quite drastically affected by where you sit: I was halfway down one side at the back of the stalls level. If you want to get the best effect of the massed corps, then you need to be much higher up. Sit in the first rows of the stalls by the lakeís edge, as it were, and you get inundated by dry ice.
One of the effects of the massed ranks swelling the stage is that apart from the leads, itís almost impossible to distinguish dancers. The Neapolitan dance is the one time that Deane doesnít elect to multiply the traditional dancers, but leaves it at two. Yat Sen Chang and Simone Clark duly seized the opportunity and looked like they remembered they were supposed to be at a ball, having a good time. Again, this seemed to be an example of where less was more effective.
But the reason that most people were there was probably to see the massed effects which are possible in an arena of this size. Deane works with 48 swans for most of Act 2, only bringing the total up to 60 for Act 4. Itís undeniably an impressive sight, and they are well drilled, though their feet are seriously noisy. I preferred seeing the smaller number of swans on stage: 60 seemed slightly unwieldy en masse, it takes a long time to get them on and off the stage in the RAH, where they only use a couple of entrances. I suspect Iím in a minority though. The company only occasionally betrayed signs of tiredness (this has been a long and very arduous tour) - a few grimaces from the men at having to do yet another lift, and the occasional lapse of concentration.
One thing hasnít changed in this production - there is still a happy ending. If thereís anything I would quarrel with about this production it is this. The music insists that the lovers die. Swan Lake should make you cry. Personally, I think this is a much greater offence (and one that some other traditional Swan Lakes share) than taking the ballet out of the proscenium arch and into the round. In many other respects, the production is much more sensitively handled than you might expect from the way it is marketed, with performances that sustain Swan Lakeís magic in a different setting.