English National Ballet’s run of Swan Lake at the Coliseum this January brings a number of notable guests. Perhaps the one most intriguing and unexpected was Ivan Vasiliev making his debut in the role of Siegfried on the opening night, dancing for the first time with the Odette of Alina Cojocaru. Vasiliev has been a very popular visitor to London before especially partnering Natalia Osipova, but that has largely been in brash, flashy crowd-pleasing roles. His muscular physique and confident manner makes him a convincing Spartacus battling the Romans, or as a French revolutionary storming the barricades. His type means he would never have been cast as this noble prince back in Russia, but a freelance career makes it possible. But would we find that he had been hiding a poetic soul under all that flamboyance all this time? Or would he throw in some of his trademark flashy jumps?
His initial entrance was graced by a few vigorously delivered pirouettes so it wasn’t initially clear in what direction he was headed. But it soon became clear that he had a genuine commitment to reinvent himself here with quite a different stage persona. He looks truly mortified at his mother’s suggestion of marriage (Jane Howarth, who looks like a woman you don’t want to cross). His solo at the end of the first act before departing with his crossbow was cleanly delivered and restrained, no egregious flourishes. This production retains the full mime sequences between Siegfried and Odette which one suspects isn’t a element he would have encountered in his training in Russia, but he dealt with these very naturally and his bow to Odette when she tells him she is a princess is as courtly as you could wish. There is a prince there after all.
Cojocaru’s Odette is more of a known quantity. Maybe this role doesn’t map so perfectly onto the core of her being as does Giselle and Juliet, but she creates beautiful effects as a ravishing swan, if sometimes a slightly remote one. In the initial meeting at the lakeside, Vasiliev gazes at her as if she’s the most precious thing on earth but her reaction to him is more muted.
Her Odette is dignified but cool. She has been waiting by that lake a long time and is not quick to trust. The white swan pas de deux is taken slowly (with sympathetic support from Gavin Sutherland in the pit). There are lovely moments in the pas de deux when he seems not so much lifting her as pulling her back to earth so she doesn’t fly away. She is a real professional, carrying on with perfect concentration, unfazed by any stage hiccups, whether it be becoming entangled in Rothbart’s costume in the prologue or a corps member fainting in the ballroom.
The black costume of the ballroom act is more flattering to Vasiliev than the earlier white one. Cojocaru’s Odile here is perhaps gleeful and mischievous rather than malevolent. It seems more of a game for her, egged on by Rothbart, rather than out-and-out malevolence. Both of them dazzle as you might expect in the ballroom scene, and if here Vasiliev does seem to burn the stage with his final series of pirouettes it does seem to fit perfectly as the climax of the duet. It is the final act that brings out the best in them. Vasiliev is abject, Cojacaru is truly touching, despairing and resolutely resolved to die.
The production is by Derek Deane, described as after Petipa and Ivanov with additional choreography by Ashton. It differs considerably from Deane’s earlier huge in-the-round version for the Royal Albert Hall. Here we have a short prologue where the princess Odette is captured by Rothbart and turned into a swan. This needs some slicker stagecraft as the substitution is only too obvious. The medieval setting has attractive designs by Peter Farmer. The production has had some changes over the years: at one point it included Ashton’s pas de quatre but that is no longer there; but Ashton’s Neapolitan dance still survives in this version. This version (unlike the in-the-round production) reverts to tragic ending as the lovers throw themselves into the lake.
The company put on a strong performance all round. James Streeter as Rothbart storms around the stage in a huge winged costume, looking like a man who really enjoys his job. The pas de trois in the opening act has another role debut here for the young recently-joined Cesar Corrales, showing off some high jumps quietly landed, with some classy dancing from the soloists Laurretta Summerscales and Alison McWhinney. Crystal Costa and Fernando Bufala looked as if they were having fun in the challenges of the fast and intricate steps of the Neapolitan.
The last word must go to ENB’s corps. They have always been a well-drilled group in all of their Swan Lake productions. Here again they delivered a harmonious and unified sisterhood of swans. Performances continue until 18 January with further interesting guests to come.