tue 23/07/2024

Swan Lake, ENB, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Swan Lake, ENB, Royal Albert Hall

Swan Lake, ENB, Royal Albert Hall

People travel the world to see Swan Tattoo and ENB is stuck with it

'Swan Lake' in-the-round: an 'Event' to take pictures at, like you doAll photos Annabel Moeller/ENB

Within two bars of the overture starting, the first flashes could be seen. English National Ballet’s arena Swan Lake at the Albert Hall - they make no bones about it now - is intended for people who rarely go to the ballet. Actually it is in many cases for people who have no compunction about talking and taking pictures through the ballet quite routinely.

The most eyecatching movement to be seen last night from my stalls seat was the constant toing-and-froing of ushers throughout the performance to reprimand members of the audience for holding up their damn mobiles in video mode, bold as you please, so that people behind them were bugged by little blue-light screens everywhere. I had two right in front of me and half a dozen to the left of me, along with a group of chatterers. Others were visible all around. They wouldn’t be told. They just got those mobiles right up again five minutes later. After all, this is not theatre - this is an Event, and you take pictures at an Event.

Derek Deane’s arena stagings have come to define ENB, a company that’s become a victim of the runaway success of his first one, Swan Lake. He made it in 1997, wanting to lure new audiences more familiar with arena rock concerts. It was evident from the behaviour of many of its audience (it’s just got worse now) that the phalanx of 70-odd swans simply became marketable, like the Edinburgh Tattoo, as a Happening, and people won’t be stopped from getting  pictures of a Happening (whereas they would happily put the mobile away to drink at the pool of Art). So for that reason alone, as they say on Dragon’s Den, I am out.

Well, I never was in on this production from the start. It always gave me a nasty pain to hear six dozen swans thundering about the stage when two dozen could have wafted, to endure the intrusive reality of the all-round visibility of the unlovely audience, and to have any poetic interface between me as spectator and the remarkable internal drama of Petipa, Ivanov and Tchaikovsky’s original concept made impossible by the mechanical wrenching and simplification of the choreography to serve four sides of viewing and a few big expected moments (pictured below).


Still, this is not the only opinion possible.  Quite apart from all the happy snappers last night, there was a great deal of loud applause: appreciation for the sparky, polished dancing by young Vadim Muntagirov - which shows audience good taste - and an animated reception for comely Daria Klimentova, the Swan Queen, a ballerina of perfect proportions and line and a lyrical amplitude of dancing. The rearranging of her role in the centre of battalions of swans meant that at several crucial times I could see her only from waist upwards, or the back of her, and at some distance too, and the sheer people-power of all those swan-girls creates a dramatic forcefield over which only a very few, exceptionally charismatic ballerinas can project Odette’s perilous fragility in any significant way.

ENB_Vadim_Daria_Act3_AnnabelMoellerBut Klimentova’s elegance made her, paradoxically, a superior Odile in the “black” act, sweet and relentless. And she is the gem of ENB in more ways than one. Not only had she stood in for the scheduled guest artist Polina Semionova (stranded by visa problems), but outside in the Albert Hall corridors an array of Klimentova’s lively and penetrating photographs of her colleagues showed that she can deliver both front-of-house excellence and backstage appeal for her company. What a treasure.

Still, last night’s palm goes to her young man, the 20-year-old Muntagirov (pictured left with Klimentova in Act Three), rapidly shooting up ENB’s ranks for readily understandable reasons and here giving his first ever performance of Prince Siegfried. He's a natural nobleman, with a fresh, boyish ardour - very appealing. Like Klimentova, he has long limbs and slender flanks, but there is nothing effete about his dancing, which rises from powerfully arched insteps and strong-thrusting legs into the air, closing in tight fifth positions as if finesse means a lot to him. This care ensures that most of his steps in the air hold splendid iconic ballet shapes. His hair seems modelled a little on Eighties Nureyev bouffant, but if his dancing and romantic ardour are too, we can stand the hair.

ENB_DK_TamasSoly_AnnabelMoellerTamas Solymosi flapped a huge bat-coat about very handsomely as the evil Rothbart (pictured right with Klimentova in Act Three), but the rest of it is literally ballet-by-arithmetic. Everything must seen in north, south, east and west of the arena, so most dances are doubled or quadrupled in number of performer and halved in complexity. A pas de trois becomes a pas de douze. The four cygnets become eight, travelling not in a comical zigzag but in less witty four-square symmetry. The big musical set-pieces of Act One display the admirable obedience and pretty arms of ENB’s corps de ballet (and of their reinforcements) - but if you have seen Swan Lake in the theatre and felt its magnetic emotional draw and noticed how unlike a grid diagram its choreography is, you might spot disappointedly that the ensemble have basically only three options from Deane: to encircle the stage, to occupy its centre or to draw lines across it.

There's plenty of evidence of Deane's eye for tidy detail and tasteful image. The non-dancers keep moving, so that the front rows don’t just get stuck behind a male bottom unable to see anything else; his successor-but-one as ENB director and old mucker Wayne Eagling has ensured that performances are precise and respectful - nothing remotely vulgar. Peter Farmer’s costumes are very nice (the court wears a comfy range of mustard shades from Dijon to Colman’s), and the swan-girls are exceptionally beautiful in embroidered white tutus and generous white-feathered bandeaus. Gavin Sutherland conducts rhythmically and mostly briskly from the orchestra’s distant eyrie in the gallery. Howard Harrison’s rock-gig lighting injects some climactic electricity into the final moments of Deane’s unelectric “happy” ending.

The skill and craft are undeniable; it’s just all so fatally misapplied, and ENB is now stuck delivering a hugely successful but cruelly limited idea of a serious and magical ballet to an audience decreasingly able to know the difference. There is a very good ENB Swan Lake by Deane - the orthodox production he did simultaneously with this one - but it’s not the one people expect from ENB. Swan Tattoo is what they want now.

It gives me a nasty pain to hear six dozen swans thundering about the stage when two dozen could have wafted

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Ismene, you're review will no doubt be heralded as being pretty much spot-on by your regular readers (those that were at last night's performance anyway). I must take a certain amount of offence however, at the idea that ballet shouldn't be for the masses or those who don't regularly attend. Your review is laced with artistic snobbery, surely one of the last things any reviewer should be allowing into their writing? Last night was indeed the first time I have attended a ballet performance, and I have to say I was blown away. It may be that in years to come - having attended other such performances - I will look back and say "well, that wasn't quite as good as I first thought", but to slate Deane for wanting to bring art to the masses is poor form. I wouldn't for example, expect you to be able to tell me anything at all about quantum theory, and no doubt you'd think it below yourself to enter into such a discussion. However, if you did wish to better understand something as beautiful and complex as this wonderful theory, you'd find no end of eager scientists willing to fill you in (as much as is possible) on it's mysteries, without snobbery and with the sort of enthusiasm you usually find in young children. My point here is that it is exactly the type of snobbery you are displaying in this review that keeps more people from becoming fans of the performing arts. This in turn means that performing arts are undoubtedly not getting exposed to enough young people that could/would be the Muntagirovs of the future. With this is mind, those performing for you will forever be just below the pinnacle of what could be achieved if we removed such attitudes.

Gosh, did I say somewhere that ballet shouldn’t be allowed for those who don’t regularly attend? I don’t think so. We all start somewhere, and I am glad you were blown away. I forget where I was first blown away. I just said that this production is not aimed at persuading someone like me to be blown away now. I cannot not-see or un-learn the experiences of Swan Lake I have had before. I have not hidden in my review that there are different audiences for ballet, nor did I fail to say that the production got plenty of noisy love from last night’s audience. Nor did I ignore the good values that I thought were knocking about in there somewhere. An artistic snob, I guess, would have refused to notice any of those things. The real problem is what you yourself illustrate - that when one attempts to identify a difference between top-flight artistic achievement and something intended to draw a mass audience, one is accused of being a snob. Do you recoil when you are not allowed to distinguish between the advanced quantum theory that you (you imply) know all about and the pathetic non-grasp that I or others might display without being dismissed as some kind of nerdy boffin? Much of what you say is interesting, so let’s not waste space on clichés.

I just scanned through the comments, and feel the need to add my own simple remarks. My daughter bought herself a fabulous seat for Swan Lake for last Friday, but couldn't manage to go in the end. We offered it to my sister, who is 61 years old, has very few adventures in her life, nor the finances to afford them, and jumped at the chance to go. This meant trains and lots of travel for her, but when she got there, she text me to say ' what a fabulous seat ' before she switched off. Afterwards, on her train journey home, she text me again - she described it as ' wondeful, truly a feast '. So understand, please, that what may be a commonplace evening to some, is a once-in-a-lifetime treat to others. My parents had never been to the Royal Albert Hall in the whole of their lives.

Although months late to the party, just feel the need to add my twopenn'th. Isn't the point of a review that it is written by someone with enough experience and expertise to be able to judge whether what is being reviewed is good, bad or indifferent? How is saying that this production is not as accomplished as others being a "snob"? And wherever a production is pegged by experts on the good/bad scale, surely that has no bearing on whether or not you personally enjoy the piece. The review is not there to say whether or not you should enjoy it - it is there to shed a little light on what to expect when you get there.

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