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Swan Lake Dance Critique Essay


'BRB has never looked better'

And it doesn’t get much better than the stunning production by Birmingham Royal Ballet currently touring the UK with a stopover last week in Islington. BRB has never looked better.

British ballet guru, Peter Wright, created this version for the company based on the original Marius Petipa choreography, an astounding thirty three years ago and so bright, sharp and deeply moving was last Wednesday’s matinee performance, it really seemed like yesterday. 


Swan Lake is so popular, because it's the best

The role of the loving Swan Princess, Odette and her evil doppelganger, Odile, was danced with perfect good taste by Delia Matthews, supported by Brandon Lawrence’s impeccably well mannered Prince Siegfried.

He even escorted her onto the stage for her solo bits and pieces before melting into the background.  A gracious social courtesy rarely seen anywhere in Britain today and a humble detail that helps mark this Swan Lake as superior.


Swan Princess, Odette is Delia Matthews supported by Brandon Lawrence’s Prince Siegfried

Matthews is exceptionally musical, not only in her eerie precision as far as simply keeping time is concerned but she and Tchaikovsky blend into one.

Some of the most passionate and despairing music ever written is turned into flesh and blood before our eyes and the two elements of movement and music become one of the most precious of all art forms, known as classical ballet. A rare gift.

But the performance could not aim so precisely at our hearts were it not for the rehearsal values employed by company director David Bintley and assistant director Marion Tait. 


BRB tour until January 2016; don’t miss them

Everything superfluous is cleaned away. The dancers are perfectly spaced on the available stage area, each one clearly visible and every step beautifully executed. What a staggeringly powerful impact on the audience a little discipline makes when applied to a stage full of artists.

Standing out from the crowd was Max Maslen as Benno, the Prince’s Friend. Just promoted from the corps de ballet, Maslem has an easy grace and a wide technique; one to watch.

 But the show belongs to Matthews. How rare it is to see a dancer finding a role through instinct.

She needed no “look at me” display, just the steps, the music and her own depth of feeling.

BRB tour until January 2016; don’t miss them. 

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London EC1R 4TN. (Touring; next week at Sunderland Empire. Details

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The tragedy of “Swan Lake” is its tale of metamorphosis: the heroine must alternate between swan and human form. Yet Peter Martins’s staging at City Ballet fails to make anything of the classic moment when Odette, as Act II ends, seems to start changing before our eyes back into a mighty bird as she leaves the stage. Kevin McKenzie’s 2000 version at American Ballet Theater, by contrast, not only hammers home Odette’s ornithomorphic predicament but also makes the sorcerer Rothbart a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona too: now a dangerously gallant cavalier, next a hideous creature from the Green Lagoon (played by another dancer).

Rothbart — this ballet’s Mephistopheles — has become the “Swan Lake” character that no current production presents seriously enough. At City Ballet, most ludicrous of all, he is an old-style operatic devil in a cloak lined with flaming orange. At the Royal Ballet he is costumed to look like a large lump of diseased moss. At the opposite extreme, the Bolshoi makes him the prince’s all-dancing shadow and nemesis, the black to his white. Especially in the performance by the bizarre but ever-enthusiastic Nikolay Tsiskaridze on the recent broadcast, he becomes so campily intrusive that he limits the impact of poor, passive Odette.

For many in the audience, though, all “Swan Lake” needs to be momentous is a stylish corps de ballet, an expressive ballerina and a princely hero. In the performances this year at both the Royal and Ballet Theater, the corps of swan maidens — excellently drilled — moved many. I find, however, that “Swan Lake” is not “Swan Lake” unless the corps dances with an element of heroic strain — notably in the downward wing beat of the arms. Today, alas, “Swan Lake” arms are universally diluted by softly pliant elbows.

The least problematic element in modern companies is almost always the hero, Prince Siegfried. This June it was particularly gratifying to catch Ruslan Skvortsov in the Bolshoi’s broadcast (just the way he stood and walked beautifully encapsulated the heroic aspects of the role) and, at Ballet Theater, David Hallberg, who, more than any other male dancer today, embodies the sense that this story is the prince’s knightly quest for aspects of his own soul.

When Sara Mearns dances Odette-Odile at City Ballet, we’re never in doubt that she’s confronting her destiny. To an extraordinary degree she makes the choreography both intimate and grand, and an unfolding drama of suspense. Nobody I saw at the Royal Ballet was in this league, but the performances by Ms. Nuñez (especially) and Lauren Cuthbertson were each gripping and lustrous. The Bolshoi’s Mariya Aleksandrova, on film, danced the role quite differently: her bleak authority makes the ballet a study in expressive deadlock, handsomely but unchangingly caught between fear and hope.

At Ballet Theater last week I knew no more about Polina Semionova by the end of her performance than at the end of her “Don Quixote”: she does everything but reveals nothing. Veronika Part’s Odette, by contrast, is powerfully sentimental, with searching gazes into her prince’s eyes and a fond clutch of his hand to her cheek. Her dancing has a number of beautiful thick-as-cream legato moments — and it certainly has heroic strain — but is inclined toward monotony. Nobody made more of Odette’s Act II exit than Michele Wiles (in what proved to be her farewell performance with the company), her arms suddenly beating the air with increasingly urgency.

Of the performances I saw last week, the most remarkable was that of Gillian Murphy. Only last year she had given a sour, flashy performance of the role. Last Tuesday, partnered by Mr. Hallberg, she was compelling. Even when her interpretation or her choice of text seemed misguided, she showed a grandeur and power that surely were a new high for her. In the coda of her Act II solo she suddenly added a soft out-of-the-blue triple pirouette that had the audience gasping aloud not because of its virtuosity but because of its unexpected rightness: it heightened Odette’s light. New York is lucky to have artists of her and Ms. Mearns’s caliber. Too bad they must be seen in such tawdry productions.

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Correction: July 6, 2011

A picture caption on Tuesday with a Critic’s Notebook article about different interpretations of the ballet “Swan Lake” misidentified the role David Hallberg was shown performing in an American Ballet Theater production. It was Von Rothbart, not Prince Siegfried. (José Manuel Carreño was Siegfried in that performance.)