English National Ballet
Milton Keynes, Milton Keynes Theatre
11 November 2014
Having enjoyed a runaway success earlier this year with Lest We Forget, a programme commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War One (recently recognised by British dance critics with four nominations for the 2014 National Dance Awards), it seemed mightily appropriate for English National Ballet to open its new season on Armistice Day. And they did so with a highly polished and enchanting performance of Swan Lake that I shall not be forgetting in a hurry!
I recommend a trip to Milton Keynes Theatre. Sited alongside several restaurants and bars, it has spacious public areas and a state-of-the-art auditorium with unrestricted views of the stage and superb acoustics. And here I’m going to take a slight diversion from being a dance critic to pay tribute to Arup Acoustics for creating a theatre in which the sound is so rich and mellifluous. I have experienced few other theatres with such impactful acoustic modelling: Glyndebourne comes to mind (unsurprisingly also by Arup Acoustics) and the new Mariinsky theatre, which was master-minded by Valery Gergiev to prioritise the acoustical value over all other design considerations. In common with the latter, the orchestra pit in Milton Keynes is remarkably voluminous and affords an excellent view of the musicians from the auditorium. I don’t imagine that Milton Keynes and St Petersburg are often compared in cultural equivalence but in acoustical terms these two modern theatres appear to be on a par.
The Orchestra of English National Ballet, conducted by Alex Ingram, took full advantage of these excellent conditions to play Tchaikovsky’s score marvellously. Amongst many highlights, the seductive lament of the solo violin in the Black Swan pas de deux was blissfully intoxicating and the soulful Entr’acte that introduces the final act provided an idyllic intermission, evocatively setting the scene for the ballet’s emotional climax.
The dancers of ENB are in tremendous form. The corps de ballet was efficiently organised in the “white” acts (2 and 4), drilled with such fine precision in their harmony of steps and the organic flow undulating through the carriage of their bodies and arms. This is testimony to extraordinary hard work, a lot of time and elite coaching. The national dances in Act 3 were much more than simple divertissements prior to the fireworks of the Black Swan pas de deux, each being stereotypical gems representing the dance characteristics of national identity, with the Spanish dance and Mazurka being particular highlights.
In a last-minute and unannounced cast change, Ksenia Ovsyanick replaced Alison McWhinney in the Act 1 pas de trois, which she danced excellently alongside Laurretta Summerscales and Vitor Menezes. Together with Jia Zhang, Ovsyanick enjoyed multiple guises as Lead Swans, Princesses and Villagers in the Act 1 polonaise and so her late substitution in the lengthy and exhausting pas de trois made for an extremely busy night!
The company has two outstanding character artists in Jane Haworth and Michael Coleman, the former radiating regal refinement as the Queen; the latter both a jolly, bumbling tutor and then unrecognisable as the ominous Master of Ceremonies in the Act 3 birthday celebrations. James Streeter was suitably menacing as the sorcerer, Rothbart, giving the wicked half-man/half-bird a flavour of Ming the Merciless (aficionados of Flash Gordon will know what I mean)! The four cygnets (Shiori Kase, Katja Khaniukova, Adela Ramírez and Anjuli Hudson) were neatly synchronised in their iconic little number (a refreshing fizz after the emotion of the White Swan pas de deux).
Alejandro Virelles – a recent recruit to the roster of male Principals at ENB – made an outstanding early impression with a strongly controlled exercise in turning, balance, carriage and extension in his poetic delivery of Prince Siegfried’s Act 1 soliloquy. A tall, elegant, lyrical dancer, Virelles proved also to be a secure partner, although his variation and coda solo in the Black Swan pas de deux were slightly tarnished by an omission and an unfortunate stumble. Nonetheless he promises to be an important new acquisition by ENB director, Tamara Rojo, and we are surely destined to hear much more about this exciting Cuban dancer in the future.
Derek Deane’s production of Swan Lake for the proscenium theatre was adapted from his earlier in-the-round spectacle designed especially for the Royal Albert Hall, which premiered in 1997, with this proscenium version following in 2000. Deane has an impeccable sense of theatre and his productions are strong on visual impact, as is certainly the case here with prolific use of cascading dry ice to represent the lakeside mist at the opening of Acts 2 and 4 (I wonder if the ballerinas lying in the stuff get a bonus for enduring the cold)? This visual appeal is greatly enhanced by Peter Farmer’s outstanding set designs, providing intimacy and perspective both by the lake and in the Great Hall of the Palace. This is often shown as merely a rather splendid three-sided box but Farmer breaks it up into curtained areas around the sides with a series of pillars stretching diagonally into the distant upstage. He has added a feeling of architectural depth to luscious interior designs, with his costumes providing even more emphasis to the overall design quality.
Eight paragraphs of praise and I haven’t yet mentioned Alina Cojocaru! My advice to anyone yearning to see the special beauty of ballet is simple: take any chance you can to see Cojocaru dance. We are blessed with many wonderful ballerinas practising their art today, each with their own special characteristics, and Cojocaru occupies the very highest echelons of these enchantresses. She possesses an ethereal quality of vulnerability masking strength, like steel covered in silk, manifest through her mastery of technique overlain by an all-enveloping expressiveness.
The tenderness of her performance as Odette (the White Swan) has been a joy to behold from the beginning, but experience has enabled a maturity in the more complex role of Odile (the Black Swan), the evil daughter of Rothbart who has to convince the Prince that she is his love, Odette. Many performances (even by some of the greatest ballerinas) are one-sided in this reflection of good and evil but Cojocaru has now mastered this most difficult of ballet’s balancing acts. She returns to the role of the hostage swan, Odette, in the final act – now unwittingly betrayed by her one true love – with heart-rending, emotional force. In many versions of Swan Lake the final act is just tying up the loose ends but here – in this production and with these performances – it is a powerful apotheosis with which to end a beautiful ballet, superbly performed in every respect.
With the exciting prospect of a new home on the horizon, ENB has been on a continuing roll of success during Tamara Rojo’s brief artistic stewardship to date. If she can have me raving about an old production of Swan Lake that I have seen so many times before – but on this basis would happily see again, tonight – then I begin to wonder whether she really has got the director’s Midas touch. So far, everything has turned to gold.