Review: English National Ballet - Swan Lake - London Coliseum

Performance: 8 - 18 January 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 8 January 2015

English National Ballet - Alina Cojocaru & Ivan Vasiliev in 'Swan Lake'. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 7 January

If I were to draw a picture of Prince Siegfried – the sensitive, myopic hero of Swan Lake – he would be tall, long-limbed, soulful, princely, charming and somewhat afraid of his mum. In today’s language we might view him as a metrosexual male: a guy that goes along with the idea of shooting swans with a crossbow but is way too sensitive to ever pull the trigger.

This idealistic picture of Siegfried would look nothing like Ivan Vasiliev. Currently the world’s most fêted male dancer, his physique and prowess is the antithesis of the princely male danseur. Vasiliev does not possess slim, featherlike legs capable of stretching out into long, luscious arabesques. He is built powerfully with short, muscular legs and shoulders broad enough for a quartet of parrots to perch and still have room for a walkabout.

Gene Kelly once remarked that Fred Astaire was dance aristocracy whereas he (Kelly) was of the proletariat. Today, there are several contenders to be the ‘Astaire’ of ballet but Vasiliev is certainly out on his own in the ‘Kelly’ mould. And this might summarise how he has reached the age of 25 without ever having been cast to dance as Siegfried.

Tamara Rojo’s cap is sprouting feathers. Unmoved by the expectations of Russian tradition, the artistic director of English National Ballet has not only corrected this omission in Vasiliev’s repertory, but – in a significant coup – opened this run of Swan Lake by pairing two of the world’s greatest dancers, neither of whom was associated with the company before she arrived. And they suit each other like caviar and vodka, even in roles that are not ideally matched to either dancer.

When Johan Kobborg came from Denmark to join the Royal Ballet in 1999, he famously announced that it was “small girl heaven” and – as he was soon to discover – the most heavenly small girl was Alina Cojocaru. Kobborg and Vasiliev are of similar medium height and both are powerfully-built. The compact ironman and the vulnerable, waif-like beauty has always been a seductive match.

It didn’t take long for Vasiliev to convince me that his suitability to dance Siegfried transcended the appropriateness of his physique (and to some extent the lesser strengths in his technique). In Derek Deane’s version of Swan Lake, the Prince has a yearning Act I solo, in which his repressed desire for a meaning to life is gently articulated. It needs the aristocratic touch and while some aspects of the choreography expose Vasilev’s weaker skills, he brings a remarkable degree of softness to this most heartfelt of soliloquies. His virtuoso explosive qualities are certainly more suited to the “Black” Act, which was a tour de force from both these star performers.

There were aspects of Vasiliev’s performance early on that were less assured (he seemed insufficiently prepared for his placements in the crowd scenes early in Act 1) but his was one of the most openly expressive character performances as Siegfried that I have seen. From many meaningful examples, one particular moment stood out, when Siegfried finds Odette amongst the swan maidens by the lakeside in Act 4 and Vasiliev takes hold of Cojocaru’s extended arm and studies it with intense fascination. He has just been fooled into infidelity by the sorcerer’s daughter, Odile, and in this small moment he appears to be looking at her delicate arm and saying “how could I have been so stupid to have believed in that imposter”.

Cojocaru’s career has developed by making these small moments as perfect as possible. She has deconstructed the twin roles of Odette and Odile into thousands of miniature gems, all refined through her own unique prism, layering steps, poses and expressions into a seamless masterclass in this epitome of the ballerina’s art. Her unbroken elegance of line is so complete that I feel cheated by the merest blink of an eye.

It is becoming a pleasant monotony to keep repeating it but the whole company continues to be on fine form. Many highlights are worth recording: the Act 1 pas de trois was delightfully and enthusiastically performed by Cesar Corrales (a young Mexican dancer debuting in this dance) with Laurretta Summerscales and Alison McWhinney; the corps de ballet was exquisite and harmonious in the white acts; James Streeter was unrecognisable as a primeval tribal warlord in the role of Rothbart; and Jia Zhang and Ksenia Ovsyanick, smooth, graceful and united as the Lead Swans.

Strong performances throughout enlivened the 3rd Act national dances (I adored Begoña Cao and Madison Keesler in the Spanish Dance as well as the exuberant fun from Crystal Costa and Fernando Bufalá in the tambourine-tapping Neapolitan). At the beginning of Cojocaru’s Black Swan variation, a performer fainted and it is to the credit of the male ENB artists that she was carried discretely off stage without many in the audience being aware of the incident.

The loudest cheers around me during the curtain calls were reserved for someone we had not seen, as the conductor (and ENB Music Director) Gavin Sutherland stepped forward to take his well-earned bow. I guess that all members of the ENB Philharmonic can play Swan Lake in their sleep and they invest Tchaikovsky’s timeless music with a richness of sentiment and expression that is not always so evident.

The biggest accolade for an evening of special joy belongs to someone we didn’t see at all (although she will be appearing as Odette and Odile herself in subsequent performances on 8/14/17 January). England’s National Ballet has always been a very special company but under Rojo’s artistic direction it has acquired a tightly-knit, progressive (and most of all, consistent) edge as a springboard for world-leading, superstar performances.

This season will continue until the farewell performance of Elena Glurdjidze – who is retiring from the company – as Odette/Odile at the matinee on Sunday, 18 January. After a dozen years of sterling service and countless glorious performances it will be an emotional end to a strong winter season at the Coliseum.

Continues at the London Coliseum until 18 January

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for Dancing Times, Dance Europe, Shinshokan Dance Magazine in Japan,, and other magazines and websites in Europe and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK. Find him on Twitter @GWDanceWriter

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