The Royal Swedish Ballet
Opera House, Stockholm
November 13 & 14, 2015

Gina Tse in Mats Ek's Swan Lake Photo Carl Thorborg

Gina Tse in Mats Ek’s Swan Lake
Photo Carl Thorborg

Maggie Foyer

I had forgotten just how good Mats Ek’s Swan Lake (Svansjön) is. It is over a decade since I last saw Cullberg Ballet present the work. Now, with young Swedish choreographers, Alexander Ekman and Fredrik ‘Benke’ Rydman, offering respectively a water and a street version and with the passage of time, the shock of the new has diminished and the sheer quality of the work shines through.

The ballet has found worthy interpreters in the dancers of the Royal Swedish Ballet, already grounded in Ek’s style. They are only the second company to mount the work and this is the first time with live orchestral accompaniment under the supportive baton of Jonathan Darlington.

The characters are given a depth unusual in a dance work: each a complex mix of desire, needs and foibles, while Ek’s selection of music from Tchaikovsky’s score, and his own choreographic language and structure, are masterful.

This is primarily the Prince’s story. He suffers from maternal authority, peer pressure and a manic father-in-law in the figure of Rothbart. His journey to self-awareness and his attempt to understand women has a deliciously ambiguous ending as Odile’s wink and shoulder shrug invite him into an embrace as the curtain descends. In Ek’s work there is never a detail that is extraneous or unconsidered.

Although the Prince is a constant presence it is, in Ek’s words, Odette/Odile who is the red heart of the work. In her movements, powerful and sometimes ungainly, and also passionate and emotional she becomes a composite woman of infinite variety. Her two Swan personas are most vividly expressed as a submissive bride Odette trots, poodle-like, at her Prince’s side to be juxtaposed in the next moment by the frisky Odile.

The three jesters, small female figures dressed in white, are another constant; their energy and boundless optimism never flagging. They serve as a sort of Greek chorus, helping the story to progress, opening the bubbly when it’s party time, packing the Prince’s teddy bear when he is off on his travels or bringing on the smoke machine to create a misty lake. They enjoy some of Ek’s most challenging and witty choreography, interpret it brilliantly, and are never short of a sharp social comment.

The costumes and sets, by Ek’s long-time collaborator, Marie-Louise Ekman, are fully integrated into the drama. A shell-like spiral dominates the first scene and the simplest lines indicate the curtains of a stage within a stage. Bold splashes of colour, the red of the mother’s extravagant dress and pony tail, are echoed in Rothbart’s beard and again in the vivid red backdrop to the Spanish dance. This curtain drops to the stage in a dramatic sweep to signal the Prince’s return home to face his future. The inspired idea of bald heads gives a unique look to the ballet and in the manner of masks, adds strength and depth to the characters.

Clyde Emmanuel Archer and the Royal Swedish Ballet in Mats Ek's Swan Lake Photo Carl Thorborg 1a

Clyde Emmanuel Archer and the Royal Swedish Ballet in Mats Ek’s Swan Lake
Photo Carl Thorborg

No character is simply good or evil: all are interestingly flawed. Rothbart is one of the most intriguing. He loves his swans more than is strictly decent, like a jealous father, he spies on Odette’s flirtation with the Prince, then weeps copiously at their wedding – or was that wild laughter? Ek so enjoys the unstable gap between joy and sorrow.

The two casts each found their own inner dynamics offering different yet valid readings. The first saw Gina Tse matched with Clyde Emmanuel Archer. Archer, vulnerable and uncertain, his movement quality always so fluid and malleable, found harmony with Tse’s gauche and loveable Odette and high-spirited Odile. The second act duet between Odile and the Prince was a convincing mix of humour and poignancy where a comedy moment may be followed immediately by a thought provoking gesture. Oscar Salomonsson, was the perfect complement as Rothbart. A dancer who is able to appear both naïve and all-knowing, he manages the manic excesses of the character who both appeals and appals. Daria Ivanova, with striking
looks and impressive technique, was an imperial mother.

Nadja Sellrup and Jérôme Marchand offered a different strength. From their first brief meeting, where they share an introductory wiggle, there was a personal magnetism. Marchand, always a commanding presence managed to portray the insecure, lonely ego of the Prince locked in a powerful body whicle Sellrup, a natural for the gutsy Odile, was also a passionate Odette. In this version the rejected fiancée named ‘The Present’ and dressed in prettiest pink is invested with a well-rounded character. The Prince’s rejection leaves her both hurt and angry. Alina Lagoas, a tall angular dancer interpreted these feelings in an astoundingly good performance. Ek demands a lot from his dancers both physically and intellectually and the dancers responded by investing in the work the passion it deserves.

Although Ek has worked consistently throughout his long career, he is enjoying something of a renaissance. His Juliet and Romeo has enjoyed international acclaim and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées hosts a tribute to him in January. Hopefully this important and impressive production will also be seen outside of Sweden.

Editor’s footnote:

Some in Sweden have taken offence with a photo showing Gina Tse getting all up close and personal with her foot against Clyde Emmanuel Archer’s face, suggesting that it is racist. See for you yourself and read Maggie Foyer’s thoughts here.