London Coliseum, London, UK; August 6, 2013
“Swan Lake” and hip-hop; Tchaikovsky and extremely modern new music; to many, I’m sure it sounds like a recipe for disaster. But that’s precisely what Fredrik Rydman brings together in “Swan Lake Reloaded,” and what an excellent evening’s theatre it turned out to be.
Perhaps more than any other of the classics, “Swan Lake” lends itself to reinterpretation and revision. Indeed, the Petipa version so well-known was itself a major reworking, of the music and story as well as the choreography. Rydman drags the story into the 21st century, moving Siegfried and Odette to a modern day dark landscape. Instead of a shimmering lake we see an industrial landscape; a world of satanic buildings set either side of a murky canal. This is Rothbart’s domain, a place where he uses drugs to gain and keep control over people and his surroundings.
This “Swan Lake” may be no sorcery or supernatural happenings, but the essential elements of the narrative remain intact. The modern day setting and context gives the story a clarity that everyone can understand. The overarching themes are still there too. It’s still about good and evil, black and white, love and loss. It does grab you and draw you in, and like all good thrillers, it leaves you guessing about the end. Even then, just when you think you have it figured out, Rydman throws in a twist.
There’s a dramatic start as Rothbart appears silhouetted in a bolt of lightning. He’s a pimp. The swans are his drug-addicted girls. Dressed in their white furs and super-high-heeled knee length boots they are completely dependent on him for protection and money; indeed, for their lives. Which will he get to work tonight? He calls up three on a huge cellphone screen projected onto the scrim. Then, there’s a pause. Odette or Odile? He chooses the former and the scene is set.
Into this world stumbles Siegfried. He’s just had his birthday party at which his mother, in attempt to find him a girl, encouraged some serious flirting, including some clever use of a red balloon. Then, a boys’ night out with his friends leads him to the red light district. He spots Odette posing in a window, like the other ‘swans’, preening herself to attract customers. The dice has been rolled.
Rydman’s dance is a lot of fun. Much of it is hip-hop inspired, but there are considerable contemporary and jazz influences in there too. Some sections are reminiscent of Matthew Bourne at his best, and Mats Ek is never too far away either, but it all seems so fresh, colourful and vibrant. There are many memorable moments. Apart from the girls in their windows, seeing them later itching for a fix, Odile being covered by insects, and a humorous take on the Dance of the Cygnets, stick out. There’s a slightly bizarre dance early on in Siegfried’s house during which each of the girls takes a dead fish (I’m not making this up!), the reasoning for which passed me by.
The male dancers get the best of the choreography, certainly the most detailed and technically complex. Fredrik ‘Kaos’ Wentzel in the dual role as Jester and Siegfried’s father gets most of the flashiest moves including, naturally, 32 headspins instead of 32 fouettés. Robert Malmborg as Siegfried dances with great energy but is equally, and perfectly, naïve. You really believe he is love struck when he first sees Odette. Daniel Koivunen as Rothbart is tall, slim and lithe; a real dark menacing character if ever there was one, and in contrast to the ballet, very, very real. His mere presence is enough to create mood and tension, and he dominates every scene he is in.
Maria Andersson is a sweet Odette, who gave the impression of an innocent trapped in a dark place. I wish we had seen more of her. If there is a criticism of the production, it’s that Rydman sometimes pushes the story along too fast. It’s not emotionally deep, although, let’s face it, Petipa’s ballet is hardly a story of smouldering love, but I do feel more could have been made of the meetings between Odette and Siegfried. Their duets are tender and caring, which just goes to show, if proof was needed, that hip-hop doesn’t have to be all about dynamic super-fast flips, spins and other tricks. It’s an opportunity missed. Andersson and Malmborg are two fabulous dancers with excellent stage presence.
Jennie Widegren was Siegfried’s mum, complete with luminous green hair. Here was a woman as interested in having her way with the jester, and at one point a member of the audience, as she does with finding her son a girl. Audience interaction rarely works, though, and that was certainly the case here.
The staging, lights and costumes are all imaginative. In stark contrast to Rothbart’s world, events in Siegfried’s home are a riot of colour, all framed by the most hideous of red and green striped wallpaper. The costuming for the women at his birthday party is idiosyncratic or inspired, take your pick. It certainly provides a talking point. Among the guests are two girls with picture frames perched on their chests so there faces appear in them, and another with a giant yellow tasselled lightshade on her head.
The notably younger than usual Coliseum audience loved it. They roared their approval at the end. And what if Tchaikovsky had wandered in? Well, I’m not sure how much he would have approved of his work being sampled. I’m far from convinced it was actually necessary anyway. But I would like to think, that like me, he would have been delighted at just how well his music and the story lends itself to today’s new dance.