Derngate, Northampton, UK; September 12, 2013       

David Mead        

Peter Schaufuss Ballet in 'Swan Lake'. Photo © Peter Schaufuss Ballet

Peter Schaufuss Ballet in ‘Swan Lake’.
Photo © Peter Schaufuss Ballet

Peter Schaufuss’ “Swan Lake” came in for a great deal of stick when it was danced in London last year. But let’s get one thing straight: the production is not ill-conceived. There are some good ideas in there, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with throwing away the pointe shoes and taking the classic into contemporary territory, as evidenced recently by Fredrik Rydman’s excellent hip-hop influenced version. Unfortunately, Schaufuss’ ideas are largely desperately poorly executed with some of the choreography cringe making.

This “Swan Lake” is actually the first in a trilogy of Schaufuss-Tchaikovsky ballets, the others being “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker.” The three are linked dreams: a nightmare, a sensual dream and a happier one, which each referencing the others and a Dream Master character being common to all three. This is the nightmare; some might say in more ways than one.

The story telling is weak. The programme note makes the narrative sound much clearer than it actually is. Often the only way of keeping hold of the thread is by referring back to knowledge of the Petipa version and recalling what one expects to be happening.

The big exception follows the arrival of the Black Swan at the ball in Act II, equivalent to Petipa’s Acts III and IV. Schaufuss, incidentally, does not use the names Odette and Odile. The scene also just happens to feature the three strongest characters: the icy cold and unfeeling Queen, danced most convincingly in her black shift by Katherine Watson; Rothbart, played with great power by Josef Vesely, who dominated every scene he was in; and Yoko Takahashi’s slinky and sparky Black Swan. It features two duets, both worthy of note, albeit for very different reasons. On one side of the stage is the Black Swan’s no holds barred sexy dance for Siegfried during which she appears to simulate oral sex. Maybe it’s just as well that most eyes are focused stage left, where something far more interesting is happening, namely Rothbart seducing the Queen in an extremely convincing and sleazy dance. When Siegfried tries to part them, he is gently turned away by the latter, complete with chilling smile. As a narrative, it makes great sense.

As Siegfried, Thaddaeus Low moseyed through proceedings in a bulky white woollen bomber jacket. His dance often seemed to consist of little more than angst-ridden stretches and staring into space. He never came close to setting the pulses racing until the very end, when he suddenly exploded in a dance full of energy and passion in a scene that culminates with him being lifted high by the swans amid a shower of feathers. There is not even a hint of romance between him and the Swan Girl, Ryoko Yagyu. So perfect as Juliet a couple of nights earlier, she was wasted here. Her Act I duet with Siegfried largely takes place on the floor, and consists mostly of unimpressive rolling around, although we were minus the Perspex mirror that usually hangs at an angle above the stage, and which may have given a different perspective.

First thoughts when the male and female swans entered in their short white wigs and bodice of feathers largely open at the back atop gender neutral white tops and trousers was that they had just been plucked; badly. They do get to dance in formation, although as elsewhere, it’s as if Schaufuss wants to be contemporary but somehow lacks the conviction to be truly so. Much of their dance is leaden and at odds with the music. Worst of all is the ‘Dance of the Cygnets’ that includes much running around and acting the fool as if they were out on a drunken hen night.

But even they were a delight compared to the two jester-like characters, who cavort around idiotically throughout. Their Marcel Marceau like mime is truly unfunny. They are totally annoying. I could quite easily have taken Siegfried’s bow, gun or whatever and shot them both. Well, I could have done if he’d have had one; but that’s something else not in this production.

I did, though, rather like the colour palette. Swans and Siegfried’s jacket apart, it ran from grey to black. Anyone familiar with recent hit Danish television dramas “The Killing” and “The Bridge” would recognise it immediately.

“Swan Lake” has probably been reimagined more than any other dance work. So maybe I can forgive the occasional turkey. The shame of it is this could have been so much more.