When Kevin O’Hare, the Royal Ballet’s artistic director, commissioned Liam Scarlett to mount a new Swan Lake, he wasn’t asking for a radical rethink. There have been many such attempts but the Royal Ballet is not the place for a re-invented classic. Dancers who have grown up performing choreography attributed to Petipa and Ivanov in Anthony Dowell’s 30-year-old production want to continue in the same tradition – or they’d join another company.
Scarlett’s new production is his homage to the ballet’s history in Russia and in Britain – Thursday’s opening night was the 1006th performance of Swan Lake by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. He has kept the accredited choreography, while appropriating dramatic ideas from other versions and adding his own contributions in the style of Petipa and Ivanov. The result, in John Macfarlane’s designs, is both sumptuous and refreshing. No longer a familiar ritual to Tchaikovsky’s famous score, it makes the most of the company’s strengths as actors as well as dancers.
The plot is driven from the start by Von Rothbart’s machinations. In a brief prologue, he turns a princess into a swan, presumably annexing her family’s realm in the process. Now he plans to take over Prince Siegfried’s kingdom by confounding him and his recently widowed mother, the Queen. Disguised as the Queen’s Advisor in her court, Bennet Gartside as Von Rothbart resembles President Putin. As his sorcerer self in a creepy outfit, Von Rothbart looks like a cross between Rasputin and Kostchei in The Firebird.
Act I takes place in a park outside the ornate palace gates. Siegfried’s birthday is being celebrated by his future courtiers – debutantes and military officers. No merry peasants with maypoles in this regimented society, although a lot of drink appears to be consumed from large goblets. Siegfried’s best friend Benno (Alexander Campbell) leads the revelry once the sinister figure of Von Rothbart is out of the way. The Queen arrives, glittering with jet, and presents her son and heir with his late father’s crossbow. He must choose a bride at the ball the following night. Scarlett has preserved the ballet mime throughout, so the Queen’s handing Siegfried a piece of card (an invitation? a list of prospective fiançées?) seems unnecessary.
Benno dances the Petipa pas de trois with Siegfried’s two sisters, Francesca Hayward and Akane Takada, in mourning lavender dresses. Long flowing skirts make them hard to partner in supported pirouettes, though both are exquisite in their solo variations. Campbell’s Benno is irrepressible as a Jester figure, dismissed at the end of Act I by Siegfried, who wants to be alone with his crossbow.
His pensive solo, elegantly danced by Vadim Muntagirov, covers the scene change for the lakeside of Act II. Macfarlane’s austere set has craggy boulders, an expanse of water, and a moonlit sky. Odette materialises mysteriously, with Von Rothbart lurking in the background. Although the almost abstract setting for Acts II and IV suggest that Odette might be an illusion, conjured up by Von Rothbart to delude Siegfried, the prologue and ending indicate that she is a real maiden, metamorphosed by a spell.
Marianela Nunez certainly portrays her as an enchanted woman who longs to trust Siegfried as her potential saviour. She is dancing for him, looking into his eyes, telling him who she is and what her fate entails. She is not channelling a mythic being, accomplishing iconic steps and poses as Russian Odettes tend to do. She phrases the choreography with an exceptional rubato effect, slowing down the last spin of a multiple pirouette, holding a balance before melting into the next sequence, contrasting adagio and allegro enchaînements. Muntagirov’s Siegfried watches her in adoration, supporting her unobtrusively as though entranced. Like his Des Grieux, he is an innocent, in love for the first time.
The corps of cloned swan-maidens frame Odette symmetrically, tutus perfectly aligned, pointe shoes silent. They are led by two majestic swans, Claire Calvert and Mayara Magri, with a quartet of cygnets more dignified than comical. Scarlett has honoured Ivanov’s Act II choreography, concluding with Odette’s reluctant surrender to Von Rothbart’s control, an alien creature once more.
In Act III, Von Rothbart is Master of Ceremonies in the ballroom, a spectacular setting by Macfarlane with a wall of gold, a huge curving staircase overhung with a swathe of brocade and an opulent throne for the monarch. Imperious Elizabeth McGorian is adorned with a parure of pearls and a train that occupies most of the staircase as she sweeps down it. Clearly, this is a kingdom of inherited wealth, coveted by Von Rothbart, who is seated well below the Queen. Courtiers dance to the opening ballabile music, and Siegfried’s sisters reprise a version of their pas de trois with Benno before he is despatched to fetch missing Siegfried. Four aspirant fiançées present themselves in flamboyant tutus, hoping in vain to attract his attention. Their retinues perform the national dances, choreographed by Scarlett: the Spanish number is a disappointment, resembling a Las Vegas floor show, while Ashton’s Neapolitan tarantella triumphs, with Marcelino Sambé even more dazzling than Meaghan Grace Hinkis.
As Odile, Nunez is a young man’s fantasy of an irresistible woman, tantalising him by seeming to reject his advances. She flies above his head in supported leaps, plunges into deep arabesques and briefly succumbs to his embrace in backbends. Smiling seductively, she lures him into believing she’s Odette in attainable form. Von Rothbart keeps a discreet distance initially, until he has to remind her that she’s enjoying herself too much and he needs to go for the kill – the oath that will betray Odette.
Nunez didn’t show off all her virtuoso abilities, possibly because of the pressure of an opening night. Muntagirov seized the opportunity to display his impeccable technique as an expression of Siegfried’s infatuation: multiple tours en l’air, one after the other, always landing in fifth position, soaring jetés, spins à la seconde, the extended leg pulled in for perfectly judged pirouettes. Because he stays in character, his physical outburst of elation seemed to astonish the audience, resulting in roars of appreciation.
Siegfried realises he has been deceived when a vision of Odette appears, a bevy of black swans invade the ballroom and Von Rothbart seizes the Queen’s crown. She is left prostrate in a heap of finery as the curtains close, brought down by treachery.
Act IV is Scarlett’s own. His choreography refers to Ivanov’s Act II, with reappearances by the quartet of cygnets (still in white tutus) and the two ‘big’ swans. Still in symmetrical patterns, the swans surge back and forth, flurrying against a moonless stormy sky. Odette informs them that all is lost; even when Siegfried runs in, to Tchaikovsky’s exultant music, he will not be able to atone for his mistake. The swan-maidens leave the lovers alone for a last pas de deux of reproach and regret.
When Scarlett rehearsed Nunez and Muntagirov in the pas de deux for an Insight session, (See above and available on the ROH website), it was evident what a good theatrical director he is, as well as demonstrator and choreographer. On stage, Odette’s despair is clear: she longs to stay in Siegfried’s arms but must reject his pleas for forgiveness. In Scarlett’s reading of the story, Odette has to sacrifice her life to escape Von Rothbart’s spell. Siegfried cannot kill him. She throws herself from one of the rocky crags into the (invisible) lake. The swan-maidens turn on Rothbart, who expires on the crag. Odette, a mortal princess once again, is lifeless, cradled by heartbroken Siegfried. In spite of Tchaikovsky’s soaring finale, there is no redemption, though a vision of Odette in swan form hovers above the lake.
It’s a forlorn ending in place of the Royal Ballet’s usual apotheosis, with Odette and Siegfried united in a mythical afterlife. We’ll probably have to live with it for years to come, unless Scarlett has a change of heart. He has placed too much emphasis on Von Rothbart’s scheming, with an ending that doesn’t quite make sense (not that old ballet plots ever make much sense). He has, however, given naturalistic life to the central couple’s emotional responses to each other – and we know that love, however true, doesn’t necessarily triumph.
The opening night cast made the most of their roles, including those that are often minor or omitted: Campbell as extrovert Benno, the two enchanting sisters (Takada outstanding), the refined cygnets, Hinkis, Elizabeth Harrod, Romany Pajdak and Leticia Stock. McGorian was gloriously glamorous as the Queen, a force to be reckoned with. Gartside was impeded by an improbable costume as the evil sorcerer, and an imperturbable glare as the senior member of the Queen’s court. Nunez and Muntagirov excelled as the doomed lovers, in must-see performances that will be streamed live into cinemas on 12 June. Details of Macfarlane’s glittering costumes should look amazing in close-up, as should the swans’ feathered tutus. Scarlett has devised a visual and emotional treat for audiences, fully justifying O’Hare’s faith in him as a director and choreographer.