Review: Royal Ballet -Swan Lake -Royal Opera House
Reviewed: 8 October
The choice of the nineteenth century’s most popular and enduring ballet to open the first season of Kevin O’Hare’s tenure as the new Director of the Royal Ballet is a safe, unadventurous start. If I can be forgiven a footballing analogy, it would be the team selection to ensure a goalless draw. The aversion to risk is offset only by the fact that Anthony Dowell’s production of Swan Lake is now looking remarkably dated, not so much in terms of the sumptuous, coppery, burnt ochre tones of Yolanda Sonnabend’s set designs but certainly due to the bizarre collection of costumes.
I’m tiring of the corps de ballet’s long feathery tutus and I have always been tired of some of the ridiculous outfits worn by the partygoers in Act 3 (men in ‘80s evening dress covered by voluminous pink tulle capes? And why is a schoolmaster in academic gown and white gloves at the Castle Ball? Did he get lost on the way to a graduation ceremony?) These rather silly, modern costumes for the ‘extras’ are in sharp contrast to the traditional garb worn by the dancers in the national divertissements and this is the major problem with Sonnabend’s costumes, which appear to lack any sense of place and time.
Dowell’s other major production from his time as Director was a modern interpretation of The Sleeping Beauty in 1994, which has been superseded by two subsequent productions, the last of which has taken us back to more traditional values. Perhaps it is time to give the Dowell Swan Lake a much-needed facelift with the acquisition of some new costumes.
The only issue I have with the dancing of Marianela Nuñez is that I can’t get enough of it. The ballerina from Buenos Aires is at the very pinnacle of her career and she dances the most complex (dual) role in ballet as Odette and Odile (the ‘white and the ‘black’ swans) with a crisp clarity of technical precision and expressive artistry that made the fiendishly difficult appear to be delivered with consummate ease. Nuñez affords the rare privilege of an understated elegance in her performance, never once showing the effort that must be required to be so close to perfection. She turns with such centred balance whether in agonisingly slow pirouettes or in her fast whiplash spins on one leg (the mighty career-defining 32 fouettès that are such a focal point of this ballet) and it seems that she can hold a steady balance standing en pointe for as long as she wants. These are the tricks of the prima ballerina’s trade but they are meaningless if not performed with that special indefinable artistry that Nuñez owns.
Here, the prince is her very own husband – the Brazilian dancer, Thiago Soares (last seen wearing a bejewelled white tuxedo at the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games) – and the chemistry between them is powered by the most natural aphrodisiac of them all: “that old black magic called love”. I suspect that Soares would be the first to admit that his own technical virtuosity is more workmanlike than jaw-dropping but he is a handsome and expressive prince, a steady and reliable partner who does everything to support and enhance his ballerina. He is also a prince that manages to party with the hoi polloi of courtiers, peasants and milkmaids without any naked photographs ensuing! Although I’m wondering how long the sight of a drunken tutor frolicking with two young girls can possibly survive in the modern age?
The cast for this opening night of the season was packed with strength, notably in an excellent pas de trois (Yuhui Choe, Helen Crawford and Alexander Campbell) and a superb Neapolitan duet by Laura Morera and Ricardo Cervera. I was also impressed by the crisp lines of the two ‘big’ swans, Itziar Mendizabal and Hikaru Kobayashi and the ebullient lead in the Czárdás by Crawford and Bennet Gartside. Despite an occasional lapse, the orchestra – under Boris Gruzin – made Tchaikovsky’s luscious music soar and the tempo seemed perfectly attuned to the dancers’ needs (particularly enhancing the adagio excellence of the lead ballerina in the white act).
So, while the vessel might be in need of overhaul, the dancers of the Royal Ballet are in fine fettle and while O’Hare has recruited Natalia Osipova – one of the world’s leading ballerinas – to guest as Odette/Odile later in this run, we should all relish the fact that we have Marianela Nuñez permanently on our home team. I don’t know if she is the world’s greatest ballerina but – if you will forgive a second footballing analogy – she would certainly make the first team.
All performances in this run (ending 24 November) are sold out. Check for returns.
The performance on Tuesday 23 October, starring Zenaida Yanowsky and Nehemiah Kish, will be relayed live to cinemas around the world
check here for details
Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.
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