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Satin and Plume

The festive lights have been switched off and the Christmas trees kicked to the curb, but sparkle can still be found this side of the holidays in English National Ballet’s glittering “Swan Lake.” Derek Deane’s production, devised in 1997, is rich in detail and spirit, a glossy vehicle for Marius Petipa’s nineteenth-century classic. There are times when its busyness verges on hectic, and when the staging reveals itself as more suited to Deane’s original in-the-round conception than the London Coliseum’s proscenium set-up, but the show’s lustrous veneer outshines these weaknesses, capturing the sugary splendour that keeps “Swan Lake” at the forefront of the classical pantheon.

Performance

“Swan Lake” by English National Ballet

Place

London Coliseum, London, UK, January 6, 2019

Words

Sara Veale

Jurgita Dronina and Isaac Hernández in “Swan Lake” Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

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James Streeter’s beastly Rothbart opens the show, mirthful and menacing as he transforms our heroine into a swan for his growing flock. Over the next three hours, we’re whisked between palaces and lakesides, finery giving way to forests as Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, the Swan Queen, and tries to rescue her from her feathered fate. Peter Farmer’s pretty set design finds romance in sumptuous candelabras and copses, hitting its highest notes at the water’s edge, where silken swans rise from moonlit mist. The costumes—a pageant of satin and plume—glisten, while the choreography saturates the stage with shining cavorts that offset hollower facets of the narrative, like the courtly to-dos of Acts 1 and 3.

The corps make a handsome ensemble, though early scenes are a little less than taut, with muddled timing on the polite prancing of the first act. The international dances that come later are tighter, particularly the jaunty mazurka, though it’s the swans who turn heads, swaying en masse like reeds in the wind. Alison McWhinney and Precious Adams lead the troupe in springing sautés and fluttering bourrées, while Crystal Costa’s brisk, perky allegro comes to the fore in Act 2’s famed pas de quatre. Streeter dips in and out of these frolics to lay claim to the flock, a pair of wicked minions in tow. His periodic entrances inject a campy dose of exuberance, and serve as a useful reminder that the mesmeric swans aren’t creatures of natural beauty at all but prisoners in Rothbart’s weird bird harem.

Jurgita Dronina and Isaac Hernández in “Swan Lake” Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

Principal Jurgita Dronina impresses technically as Odette, bringing assurance, poise and an unassailable turnout to her quick-fire footwork and lissom arabesques. Even more outstanding is her emotional dexterity, which gleams as she swaps the fragile lyricism of Odette for the coy deceit of Odile, the Black Swan. Gone are the sweeping smiles the Swan Queen uses to lead her flock, the shudders of vulnerability that ripple through her neck as she melts in Siegfried’s arms; in their place are arched eyebrows and a cocked head—the cool trappings of an imposter with all of Odette’s beauty but none of her humanity.

There’s no such complexity in Isaac Hernández’s turn as Siegfried, though the role is of course more straightforward. Hernández plays the prince with a gentle diffusion that occasionally reads as vacant, but by and large portrays simple delight at the prospect of wedding his newfound love and dispelling the pressure to fulfil his royal duties. (Her creaturely incarnation is curiously irrelevant to both Siegfried and his parents.) If Hernández’s expressiveness is a little hesitant, he shows no pause in his technique, doling out casually dashing moves one after another, including a set of flawless fouettés in his pas de deux with Odile.

If this “Swan Lake” is missing one thing, it’s the sense that that a high-strung, hot-blooded romance is at stake. Dronina and Hernández dance together with honeyed harmony rather than electric chemistry, and thought they occasionally approach a fiercer spark—for example, in their Act 2 duet, when Odette yields to Siegfried’s affection in a heartbreaking embrace—the show smothers any smouldering flames by downplaying their deaths and fast-forwarding to a placid epilogue where their spirits soar off into the night.

Still, the production’s glitzy finish and alluring details bring a salient sense of drama and occasion—a welcome tonic in the bleak mid-winter.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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