Saturday, 4 June 2016

Empire Blanc: Dawson's Swan Lake

Standard You Tube Licence

Scottish Ballet, Swan Lake, Liverpool Empire, 3 June 2016

On my train back from Liverpool a young man asked to borrow my programme. He explained that he had attended Scottish Ballet's Swan Lake but had not bought a programme because he had not noticed any on sale. He added that this had been his first experience of ballet. "How lucky you are," I reflected as I handed him my programme "for I can think of no better introduction to the ballet that this one."  The reason I say that is that David Dawson has distilled Swan Lake into a very potent concoction. When that young man sees a traditional Swan Lake, such as English National Ballet's in the round at the Albert Hall which I recommended strongly to him, he will understand and appreciate that work in a way that he would never have done otherwise. However, had he started with such a work he might well have been lost in a sea of tutus, feathery headgear or been diverted by the divertissements.

Readers will have noticed that I used the word distilled in relation to Dawson's Swan Lake rather than "stripped down" as did Judith Mackrell in The Guardian (see Swan Lake review – stripped-back version even loses the lake 20 April 2016) and Mark Monahan in The Telegraph (see You can strip a Rolls-Royce down only so far before it stops being a Rolls-Royce 20 April 2016) for with all due respect to them they miss the point. This was Swan Lake all right in the way that so many other choreographers' versions are not.  All the essentials of the story are there and Dawson is faithful to the characters - except perhaps to Rothbart whose role in the equivalent of the black act is performed by four men in masks. Dawson told the story directly and without distractions in a way that is appropriate to our times.

The reason why Rothbart was all but written out of the story is that he is not essential to it and his cape waving gets in the way. Dawson does not need Rothbart because nobody has cast a spell over Odette. She is described in the synopsis as
"a beautiful woman by the lake. Goddess-like and barely human, she is the Swan Queen, Odette, replenishing her powers from the waters of the lake. She morphs between forms both human and swan."
In her excellent programme note, A Swan Lake for a New Generation, the Glasgow Herald's  ballet correspondent Mary Brennan explains:
"And the Swan herself. Dawson refuses to show her as a victim. 'In my version she is not a prisoner of any kind of spell. Rather she is a goddess, a divine being in her own right - and free to make her own choices in her relationship with Siegfied.' Rather than take the 19th century Romantic version at face value, Dawson went researching into other source material. He came across a mythic version that sparked his imagination: 'It described those goddess creatures who once every hundred years would come to bathe in the lake so as to replenish their beauty and immortality. The chances of anyone ever seeing them ..... it shouldn't happen, but Siegfried has, yet again, gone off by himself and - like something out of his own inner imaginings - he encounters the exquisitely ethereal Odette.'" 
Given that scenario there is no need for a Queen Mother, or a bow, or the contrived show of generosity which seems a bit artificial for an 18 year old even in Petipa's version:
"Gee thanks Ma. A crossbow for decimating the local bird life. Just what I really wanted. I mean everyone has an iPad and what would I do with a Porsche? "
However, there is a need for Benno, Siegfried's good mate in Petipa's version. His role is greatly expanded and he stays with Siegfried throughout the ballet.

As in Petipa's version the focus is on Siegfried who is described in the scenario as  "portent and pensive", a lovely phrase for just plain moody.  Yesterday that role was danced by Victor Zarallo. Although there are plenty of moments when his considerable strength and stamina requires he is most effective when he is alone on stage, sometimes motionless, other times a barque on a stormy sea of conflicting emotions.

Good hearted, kindly generous Benno who sticks with his friend even after Siegfried threatens him, was danced by Nicholas Shoesmith. Tall, athletic and commanding girls flock to him in total contrast to his maungy mate. He tries so hard to entice Siegfried out of his moodiness. Standing with his arm over his friend's shoulder he presents one delectable maiden after another to distract Siegfried from his dark thoughts. When Odile appears and Siegfried flips he tries in vain to keep him grounded. The equivalent of the fluttering image of Odette through the French window doors in the traditional version is Benno's urging Siegfried to be sure that he has found the right girl.

The star of Swan Lake is of course Odette-Odile. It is a role that not every ballerina can dance convincingly because it requires the projection of two personalities from the same body. I may be wrong but I should imagine the easier part is probably the seductress Odile despite all those fouettés because she is manifestly human.  It must be far more difficult to become a swan.  Bethany Kingsley-Garner, who has recently been elevated to principal, was perfect in both. She first came to my notice as Cinderella in Edinburgh (see Scottish Ballet's Cinderella 20 Dec 2015) and she has already entered my canon of all time greatest ballerinas. The only other Scottish dancer in that rare company is Elaine McDonand (see Elaine McDonald in her own Words 11 March 2014).

I should say a few words about John Otto's sets and Yumiko Takeshima.

Judith Mackrell complains that there is no lake. She is wrong, It is there. Indeed it is central to the ballet. It is the boundary between the real world in which Siegfried and Benno live and the ethereal world of Odile. Otto cleverly creates that boundary with his translucent screens and backdrop.

"Where are the tutus and feathery headgear?" one might ask. Takeshima has lost them and rightly so for their only purpose is to represent the body and movement of a swan and Dawson's choreography does that so much better. Her characters are dressed simply and timelessly: white leotards as swans, full skirted Dances at a Gathering style dresses as party guests or in trousers, T-shirts and jackets in the case of the men.

Nevertheless, we did see swans and that was through Dawson's expressive choreography. The fluid arm movements in open fifth to suggest the expansive flapping of wings. The glissades and low level lifts and turns to suggest gliding and hovering over water. There was so much detail. Miming, Benno's facial expressions even a high fives at one point in the first scene.

Although Dawson created every single step there was still a lot of Petipa in his ballet. The cygnets, for example, was still a pas de quatre albeit free moving, energetic, high jumping, young swans just as one can find on any waterway.  In the seduction scene, first Siegfried then Odile did fouettés. I was bolt upright on the edge of my seat with excitement.

While waiting for my train at Lime Street I tweeted congratulations to Christopher Hampson, David Dawson and Scottish Ballet. I am sure the company's founder Peter Darrell would have been proud of this work had he lived to see it. And though some may disagree with me, I think Marius Petipa would have been proud of Dawson too.

Why the Empire Blanc title to this review? The first Dawson work that I had seen on stage was Dawson's Empire Noire in Amsterdam (see Going Dutch 29 June 2015). I saw Swan Lake in the Empire Theatre in Liverpool. And "blanc" because most swans outside Australia at any rate are white.  Despite a lot of sweeties packet rustling, a constant hum of commentary and all sorts of liberties taken with mobile phones the Empire was a good place to see this ballet.  Liverpudlians are warm and passionate folk and they showed those qualities in their cheers and clapping at the end.

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