Swan Lake - review
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
There is an art form that has been sadly overlooked by Connected Cultures since the launch of this portal. This missing form is ballet.
Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky’s classic tale of love, sorcery, deception and broken hearts, has just come to the end of a highly successful run at the Royal Albert Hall. In performing this ballet in the round, The English National Ballet (ENB), under the leadership of Tamara Rojo, has scaled new heights of innovation and excellence.
Swan Lake, The English National Ballet, June 2016
The Royal Albert Hall
There are 60 swans on stage when they all come out. One of these swans is Tamara Rojo. But how do you identify one swan among so many? Simple. The ENB's principal ballerina gives a commanding performance as Odette, the Queen of the Swans. She is beautiful and brilliant and leads the flock with aplomb. All eyes are upon her as she dances coquettishly, bewitchingly, engagingly, passionately. Rojo moves around the stage as if she were born to make us fall in love with her, and we are enthralled. See the Connected Cultures profile of Tamara Rojo here.
Odette, Queen of the Swans (photo via the Liverpool Echo)
The male principal role of Prince Siegfried was played by the impressive Isaac Hernandez. Yonah Acosta (nephew of Carlos) has also starred during the run. A fine supporting cast filled the stage.
Music, magic and power
The music ranged from delightfully engaging to thoroughly enchanting to disturbingly haunting. The main refrain has been floating around in my head for the last twenty four hours. Tchaikovsky knew the best instrument for any given passage of music; he did so well to select the oboe here. And a live performance of such excellence is an incredibly uplifting event.
There are many spectacular moments in Swan Lake. The Dance of the Little Swans is unashamedly a favourite of mine. We all know the tune, but it’s fun to listen to and mesmerising to watch. Two groups of four swans danced in partnership with their shadows as much as with each other. A mist of dry ice formed over the lake. And the ballerinas really did look line swans, with all those fine white layers of tulle and graceful movements. Skilful lighting and perfectly rhythmic dancing created the stunning impression of swans paddling fiercely beneath the surface of the lake.
The Dance of the Little Swans (photo © Laurent Liotatardo)
Ballet reveals the beauty of the human form. And even though it might look easy to lift an apparently delicate, fragile ballerina over one’s head, this is not an art form for lightweights. Ballet depends upon flirtatiousness and magic, but it also demands determination, stamina and strength developed over many years.
Comedy and appreciation
As well as the beauty, precision, technique and strength there is also humour, and Swan Lake provides plenty of this. Such a high endeavour must be hard to sustain without a few moments of light relief. We see the bumbling King struggling to keep his feet and Von Rothbart racing menacingly around the stage, spreading his owl-like wings furiously and engulfing everyone in his path. He is evil, but funny, in a wretched sort of way.
The evil sorcerer von Rothbart, never without his wings
(photo via the Evening Standard)
The dancers, as well as being brilliant, are such show offs! They delight in doing their star turns and then step forward to seek approval. Their artistry was richly rewarded throughout the performance by a discerning and admiring audience.
Black and White
Swan Lake is full of contrasts. Tchaikovsky presents us with a moral and physical romantic tragedy in black and white terms, and it’s hard to find the grey areas. We find love and rapture versus deceit and despair. Purity and defilement. Happiness and sadness. Life and death. Eternity and oblivion. And all of this from Russian folk tales, one amusingly entitled ‘The White Duck’. Folk tales are not the same as nursery rhymes, of course. The magic is usually dark. Swan Lake relies up on an evil sorcerer to drive the plot forward. The storyline also has links with Romeo and Juliet, The Little Mermaid and The Frog Prince. Thrilling combinations of the romantic and the grotesque.
Swan Lake is also a study of falling in love, engaging in a whirlwind romance, pledging your undying love on the second date and then discovering that you have just committed yourself to a beautiful impostor. Tragically, your true love is trapped, powerless to expose the deception, watching in pain and sentenced to life as a swan, or death.
Prince Siegfred, in love with the wrong swan ?
(photo via www.tamara-rojo.com)
The Odette/Odile dual role is fascinating. Tamara Rojo is brilliant as both. As Odette, the white swan, we marvel at her vulnerability and cautious approach to being wooed by Siegfried, before he lifts her into moments of stratospheric bliss. As Odile, the black swan, we see a far more daring performance. Lots of fabulously controlled spins and plenty of seduction. How does Rojo not get dizzy!? The Prince is lured into a contest to spin even more extravagantly. As a dancer, he is in control. As a besotted lover, he is lost. This is the most frenetic scene in the performance.
Odile, the Black Swan (photo via BBC4)
Tragedy or Happy Ever After?
There are more emotionally draining experiences to come, not least in the final scene. The death of a swan cannot be treated lightly. Still, as J.R. Tolkien pointed out, “there is no true end to any fairytale”, and the finale to Swan Lake can go several ways. Here, we had the “Hollywood ending”, with the wicked sorcerer beaten down through the trapdoor, and Odette, alive and radiant, lifted high by the Prince. Love triumphed over evil, but a sadder ending would have worked just as well for me.
Swan Lake, photo via The ENB
I witnessed genuine magic on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in a series of delightful expositions. So much tenderness and excitement. Such graceful movement, executed with perfect timing, balance and control. The performance was completely en pointe.
I was thrilled to experience this ethereal, inspiring performance by the English National Ballet. The dance, the story, the music, the atmosphere all combined to provide a rare treat. This was an experience that I had foolishly been denying myself for many years, through lack of awareness, and I now know better.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
TR’s Swan Lake Page
English National Ballet