Glasgow, Theatre Royal
19 April 2016
My goodness David Dawson’s new Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet makes you think about what really defines ballet’s most iconic work. For Dawson it just reduces to the Tchaikovsky music and a love story told in contemporary times. Out goes spectacle, the court, well known Petipa and Ivanov steps, Rothbart, Mother and a million other things you rather take for granted. I didn’t feel particularly duped in this – all the interviews and mood music since the start was that this would be a very contemporary take on Swan Lake, and Dawson is not your usual choreographic suspect for a narrative ballet, though he has made full evening versions of Giselle and Tristan + Isolde. As Christopher Hampson (the Director of Scottish Ballet) put it in an interval speech, the company wanted something that would push the dancers and push the audience – something very fresh. And despite all the reductions it’s a Swan Lake that is actually rather respectful to the past rather than a radical turning inside out in the manner of Mats Ek or Maguy Marin.
Perhaps the most successful Swan Lake of recent times has been Matthew Bourne’s and he actually turned the story wholly around with male swans etc and took the ballet to new audiences, as well garnering a great critical reception and a thumbs up from many regular (ballet) goers. Bourne can do this because he has an almost umbilical connection with Joe Public – he knows how to tell a story, define and develop characters, how to lead the eye and that’s backed up by wonderful clear design from Lez Brotherston. David Dawson, and his designers, don’t really posses this umbilical connection and empathy with the audience. Dawson’s connection is with achingly beautiful steps and often deep, if mysterious, emotion. It can work well in shorter works but it struggles to convey narrative readily.
Sadly Dawson’s (and his team’s) new telling gets off to a lacklustre start. Yumiko Takeshima’s costumes has everybody dressed in youthful casual wear – nobody is differentiated, including Siegfried and Benno (one of the few survivors from the original plot) and Dawson supplies a party full of muddled dance. Nothing seems to standout or please and the only impression one gets for all the 25 long minutes of capering is that Siegfried is a sulky git who doesn’t really fit in. At this point I was registering 1 star and feeling pretty forlorn. Things pick up in the next scene – act 2 by the lake and the introduction of Odette – though John Otto’s grey cube set (with the odd dynamic curve a la Coke bottles) seems curiously un-supportive of the meeting and growing togetherness of the lovers. It also seems to stop the possibility of side lighting, and the swan leotard costumes, a highlight of pre-show publicity shots, look bulky rather than something not of this world. There are no massed ranks of Swans but a looser, often harmonious, arrangement, if Dawson has nothing constructive to do with the Cygnets music and it again cruelly points up the lack of cameo roles and dramatic asides in the production. But Dawson’s steps for Siegfried and Odette really echo deep love and at the interval I was sitting at 2 stars.
Things pick up in the second half of the ballet as the action ever homes in on the two leads. Christopher Harrison’s Siegfried, robbed of being a prince and all that backstory, has the harder job of emoting his loneliness, and does it admirably. Sophie Martin’s Odette/Odille, despite the costume, steals the show with layers of dramatic nuance on top of the pushed lines of Dawson’s steps. The very end is particularly effective and heartbreaking as Odette and the swans recede and Siegfried is left in his loneliness. It’s a truly 4 star moment and you so wish we had moments like this before the interval. If the storytelling is at best uneven, at least it gets steadily better as the ballet progresses and throughout the evening Scottish Ballet’s orchestra give their all to Tchaikovsky. Most Swan Lakes take repeated viewings and this will be no different – I suspect there is more subtlety in it than we saw at the premiere. All up, I got to 3 stars by the end and while it might not always be easy I applaud those who look to take ballet forward rather than regurgitate its past.