English National Ballet
Streamed archive recording of 21 Nov 2018 performance at the Liverpool Empire
Relay 27 May 2020
Part of ENB’s #WednesdayWatchParty, #ENBatHome series
It is always a pleasure to watch Derek Deane’s superb Swan Lake, whether it’s the full-on, ‘in-the-round’ experience at the Royal Albert Hall, or in a proscenium arch setting. Because of COVID-19, the opportunity to see it live at the RAH as scheduled, quickly evaporated with the advent of lockdown. Watching it on screen, as part of English National Ballet’s #WednesdayWatchParty series should have been some sort of compensation and it was, on many counts.
Filmed on 21 November 2018 at the Liverpool Empire (proscenium arch) while the company was on tour, it struck me that this was not necessarily a film that was expected to air in the public domain (no director is credited) and while it was adequate, there was limited close-up camera work. The advantage of having many wide screenshots was that we were able to appreciate just how excellent the patterns and choreography are for all the corps de ballet work – and not just in the white acts. Also, many of the highlights in the quality of the individual performances came from unexpected quarters.
Act I is sometimes seen as a precursor to the arrival of the Swan Queen in Act II and in a screened version, one might focus less acutely during some of it. Absolutely not in this version. The vibrant Pas de Douze is an opportunity to pick out the very many talents within the ranks of ENB. So much soloist quality on view was an inspiring beginning. Isaac Hernández as Siegfried, made a handsome prince with neat work, if somewhat unengaged and flippant at this stage about his responsibilities. As the Queen Mother, Jane Haworth, made her feelings clear – there were some great visual exchanges, her no-nonsense approach to the question of marriage and raised eyebrows at his avoidance of compliance, spoke volumes. In spite of this admonition, Hernández did not come across as a prince that wanted to please, or conversely one that might wish to enjoy himself and play the field. Thus far, we were not sure what to make of him.
The Pas de Trois in Act I is a fixture that tests soloists to the full and generally presents an opportunity for audiences to check out the burgeoning talents of future stars. More than memorable dancing from Daniel McCormick (he turns and jumps with so much gusto and brilliance) and his partners Rina Kanehara and Alison McWhinney made for a pleasant interlude though Kanehara, who is such an accomplished dancer in every way, could make a better fist of her entrechats sixes in her solo. The first real surprise came in the form of the leading couple in the peasant dance. This dance is not always particularly memorable but in Deane’s production, they really have to work extremely hard. Barry Drummond and Anjuli Hudson were so on top of their game I couldn’t resist playing it back for a second time (another advantage of screenings – you get to savour your favourite bits). And there was more to come from them later in the performance.
Deane’s white acts are nothing short of thrilling and a way to truly appreciate that this ballet would be nothing without first-rate swans: wonderful lines, committed belief in their roles, clean execution. Cygnets were ‘as one’ (Adela Ramírez, Hudson, Kanehara and Katja Khaniukova); Big Swans McWhinney and Jia Zhang absolutely glorious in their duet (Zhang has to be one of the most underrated dancers in the company). Jurgita Dronina as Odette appeared ready to produce the goods with very beautiful arabesque lines and balances at the start. However, the vulnerability of her Odette was not much in evidence. And the chemistry and spontaneity was arguably absent between the two in the pas de deux. There was, as a consequence, a bit of an emotional void and a distinct lack of tenderness. Even the mime sequences were not clearly revealing the story. James Streeter acts himself into virtual flight as the evil Rothbart offering enough drama to miraculously fill any less animated shoes.
Act III was again eclipsed by the ensemble and soloists and the outright panache of those concerned with setting the scene, rather than the leading protagonists. Lovely, lyrical princesses sporting some delightfully disgruntled and disappointed expressions at Siegfried’s outright rejection, led into excellent character dances. None was more so than Drummond and Hudson in the Neapolitan dance. Absolutely stunning footwork and beats from both (even during their very first and speedy entrance) simply enhanced their joyous exuberance. That kind of stage presence is infectious (another replay ensued). It’s sad to say that the famous Black Swan pas de deux did not ignite the elation one sometimes feels. Both are smooth technicians – Hernández gave a slick account of his solo, as Dronina did of hers. The pas de deux though was half-mast – even interactions with Rothbart (bursting with menace) seemed without conviction. That the coda was under par does not disconcert me as much as the lack of tension and drama between the couple. I would like to apportion some of this to the very few intimate camera angles but I suspect that actually the essence of this partnership was muted.
Act IV is always the one that musically moves me the most (especially with Gavin Sutherland conducting) and in Deane’s production I just allow his swans to carry me through Tchaikovsky’s wondrous score. For whatever reason, I did not feel the depths of Odette’s plight as much as I would expect. One should not dwell on the chemical imbalance of a partnership – there will no doubt have been many, many cast changes and mixing of Siegfrieds and Swan Queens on an autumn tour such as this was. But I do wonder why ENB chose this particular (acceptable but sometimes subdued) recording to stream, when we are all suffering from live performance withdrawal symptoms and this company so often produces spectacular performances, sending audiences away in raptures.