Milton Keynes, Milton Keynes Theatre
6 April 2016
One has to admire the finesse with which Northern Ballet’s artistic director, David Nixon and his music arranger, John Longstaff, have butchered Swan Lake, even while questioning their justification for doing so. I don’t mean butchery as botchery, which is how that noble profession has come to be regarded, at least colloquially; but, in the sense of neatly filleting a carcass into something consumers might want to buy. And, while on the subject of carcasses, I’m glad to say that perhaps the most notable change made by the choreographer to the work he premiered, way back in 2004, is to have changed the prologue and omit the dead swan. At least, I think he did!
The reason for my uncertainty lies in the fact that much of the prologue action takes place at the extreme left, upstage, and, being seated on the far right in the semi-circular configuration of the stalls at the MK Theatre, meant that I spent part of the prologue, viewing a stage on which no performers were visible. Although admittedly doing it in just one opera house, Frederick Ashton used to make sure that audiences could see his choreography from every possible vantage point; it seems to me that it is just as important to do this in a touring company, otherwise one leaves spectators – in otherwise good and costly seats – craning their necks to see what is around the corner. The two women sitting next to me – that is, further into the auditorium – moved to get a better view.
But, back to the deceased Cygnus, or rather, its omission. In the original version of Nixon’s ballet that I saw some twelve years’ ago, the prologue had Anthony (the character we might otherwise know as Siegfried in any traditional interpretation of Swan Lake) discover a dead swan in the lake by his parents’ country house and somehow this triggered a lifelong obsession with its spirit. This rather stomach-churning imagery has now, thankfully, been replaced by a scene in which Anthony and his brother – fooling around as young boys – go for a swim in the lake, but the brother never returns. This prologue works well with Tchaikovsky’s overture and sets the scene for the continued anguish to come.
Nixon’s swans are rather odd. Whilst I loved their tight white bodices and flowing tulle skirts, a beautiful variation on the white swan costumes designed (as with all the other outfits) by Nixon himself, their stealthy appearance, creeping through the reeds of the lake made them seem more like undines (water nymphs or spirits) than swans.
Never mind our obsession with the ballerina (Black Swan and all that), poor old Siegfried is the character that has had the worst of it in the many and varied interpretations of Swan Lake that have proliferated in the past fifty years. Here, the poor guy gets a name change and is generally reduced to an emotional wreck: doodling graffiti on his bedroom wall; obsessed with the spirit of a swan; in love with his best mate; in thrall to a domineering mother; and trapped in a marriage of convenience. It’s a wonder that Javier Torres manages to convey all of this and still appear surprisingly virile.
Although David Nixon authored this ballet long before Lord Grantham was a twinkle in Julian Fellowes’ eye, it certainly provides an inkling of Swan Lake meets Downton Abbey. The main action is set in an English country house immediately prior to the First World War, with setting and costumes to suit. The flavour of that age of innocence is well established but I liked much less the complicated flock of relationships that Nixon and his dramatic associate (Patricia Doyle) have assembled around Anthony’s emotions. The flirtations with his best friend, Simon are transitory, merely hinting at the theme of pent-up homosexual angst that is so central to the role of the Prince in Matthew Bourne’s iconic interpretation of the same ballet. The role of Odilia, the fashionable society woman that Anthony marries, is also under-written. Martha Leebolt is stunning in the counter-intuitive white, fur-lined suit, she wears for Anthony’s coming-of-age party (usually the black swan act) and the pas de trois she dances with Torres and Giuliano Contadini’s Simon (replacing the Rothbart character) is superbly choreographed and performed.
If I might switch from the butcher to the baker, the problem is that Nixon seems to want his cake and eat it. That is to say, he keeps most of the iconic moments from Swan Lake (not including the 32 fouettes) but adds in many new scenes to suit his narrative. It makes the production a hybrid of a modern interpretation that retains edited highlights of the classical choreography. Thus, the fourth act seems to be two parts sown together: beginning with the denouement of Nixon’s story in a bedroom scene which unravels the three-into-two-won’t-go plot of Anthony, Simon and Odilia before arriving at the lakeside to finish with a variation on the theme of the traditional white act to Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music.
This chopping and changing between classical and modern involves a similar process with Tchaikovsky’s score. Longstaff has patched in a variety of other tunes from the same composer to provide music for the new scenes. In 2004, I disliked this messing around with a much-loved friend but perhaps having mellowed over the years, I found Longstaff’s arrangement, this time, much more sympathetic and it was actually a pleasure to hear the adagio from Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony in this new visual context.
Which brings me to the best of this Swan Lake – and the reason why this is a 3 star review – and that is Nixon’s flowing and descriptive choreography. Here is a choreographer with a director’s eye and there are few dance makers around today with his ability to tell stories so superbly illustrated in movement. His dancers have great strength of expression and there is currently a very pleasing balance between the new generation (amongst whom, Ayami Miyata made a strong impression in the cut-down role of Odette while the incisiveness of Kevin Poeung’s movement shone out from amongst Anthony’s friends) and the company’s senior dancers (led by Pippa Moore and Hiranao Takahashi, as the mother and father).
Watching this year’s iteration of the company’s strength brought back another poignant memory from 2004 in the image of Jonathan Ollivier as Anthony, a reflection made all the more tender by the fact that the day of this performance in Milton Keynes would have seen the celebration of his 39th birthday.