Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, UK; November 15, 2014
“Swan Lake” comes in many shapes and sizes, but Derek Deane’s proscenium production for English National Ballet (he also created their ‘in-the-round’ version for the Royal Albert Hall) is about as traditional as they come. It’s also less heavy and oppressive than some. That’s a feeling helped along by having a Prince who is happy and full of joie de vivre, and whose mind is only on celebrating his birthday; or at least it’s only on that until his mother puts the proverbial spanner in the works by constantly reminding him, at one point in no uncertain terms, that it’s time he found himself a princess.
Deane’s telling of the story is quite traditional and follows closely the original libretto, although he adds in a prologue showing Odette being captured and turned into a swan by Rothbart; a useful insertion that at least explains how we got to where we are. His enormous winged wicked sorcerer gets much more to do in the rest of the ballet than is often the case; and James Streeter was certainly a villainous character, swooping around to great effect, although also one who could turn the charm on when he wanted to, as when engaging in small talk with the Queen during Siegfried’s birthday ball. Deane also dispenses with the character of Benno, Siegfried’s friend; although that’s no great loss.
Deane’s Act I dances, which take place in the palace courtyard as it’s being prepared for Siegfried’s birthday by the workers are sunny and upbeat. The sun is shining and all is right with the world. In the pas de trois, the excellent Shiori Kase stood out for her sharp, precise footwork, but Ksenia Ovsyanick and Fernando Bufala ran her close.
Down by the altogether darker and gloomier lakeside, Laurretta Summerscales captured perfectly the innocence of the captured Odette. She was as delicate and vulnerable as you could wish for. Time and again her body rippled in and out of Siegfried’s reach as she felt the turmoil of wanting to escape, wanting him, yet knowing she could not have him. Although her Odile was clearly a clearly different character, here she did not come across as calculating or manipulative as one would expect. And although there was mostly nothing wrong with the steps per se, her fouettés were a disappointment. They looked tired, with a couple of noticeable hops and a bit of a wander off line.
Alejandro Virelles, who recently moved from Boston Ballet, was an accomplished Siegfried. The slimly built Virelles is a beautiful dancer, full of strength and finesse, and looks a totally reliable partner. Indeed, there was absolutely no sense that the performance’s partnership only came about following Alina Cojocaru’s unexpected unavailability. But while conceding that Deane’s production is not one of the deeper and more meaningful “Swan Lakes”, I could still have done with just a little more lakeside emotional feeling for Odette. That it was lacking was a surprise after the sense of looking for someone or something that he exuded during the latter part of Act I, when he seemed lost in his thoughts. What really sticks in the memory, though, are his leaps. Not only did they soar, his jetés gave the impression of momentarily being suspended in mid-air, but his landings were also so feather-light. There really was barely a sound. I suspect he is going to become an audience favourite.
The ENB corps deserve gold stars for an excellent show of togetherness. Everything was perfectly in time and their patterns were always in place. The sight of twenty four swans, shimmering as one, was poetry in motion. Michael Coleman was his usual characterful self as the Prince’s tutor and then the Master of Ceremonies at the ball.
The weakest part of the ballet (although it’s certainly colourful) is Act III, at least up to the Black Swan Pas de Deux. The six princesses shipped in as prospective marriage partners are unmemorable. Indeed, you could easily mistake them for just another half dozen guests, the matter not being helped by the fact they don’t dance in turn with the Prince. Rothbart and Odile show up early, Siegfried and Odile then disappearing off, presumably to get to know each other better (the way they re-enter later, hand in hand, suggests they succeeded), while Rothbart sits next to the Queen and enjoys the dancing. Those dances do feel a bit like padding, though. You can sense that everyone is really just waiting for the couple to come back.
The end slightly anti-climactic. Having announced she is going to kill herself, Odette rushes off stage followed by the Prince. The next thing we see is them gliding through the sky on some sort of sleigh.
Rothbart, on the other hand, gets some wonderful death throes.
Peter Farmer’s designs are a feast for the eyes. Along with Deane’s choreography they contrast effectively the informality of the palace courtyard with the correctness and decorum of the palace ballroom. Best of all is the rocky lakeside, though, where his tromp l’oeil set and Howard Harrison’s lighting come together to give a remarkable sense of depth and distance. The near-monochrome look not only adds to the mystical feel, but gives the white swans an added sense of other-worldliness. It is startlingly effective. The costumes are equally sumptuous, although I couldn’t help thinking the two quite distinct groups at the ball, one dressed in red, one in green, looked like opposing football supporters sitting in the stands at a match.
All in all, a treat; and a “Swan Lake” that warmed the heart on a chilly November day.