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Ruffling Feathers

Twenty years after their last production of “Swan Lake,” Scottish Ballet return with this tough but tender spin on the iconic ballet, created by internationally acclaimed Amsterdam-based choreographer David Dawson. Composer Tchaikovsky described the swan as “femininity in its purest form,” and Dawson's approach is certainly suggestive of this.

Performance

Scottish Ballet: “Swan Lake”

Place

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Scotland, April 19-23, 2016

Words

Lorna Irvine

Sophie Martin and Christopher Harrison in Scottish Ballet's “Swan Lake” by David Dawson. Photograph by Andy Ross

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With a pared-back, utterly minimalist set designed by Dawson's regular collaborator John Otto, which features criss-cross interconnected sloping beams and a single white curve for the lake, which are complemented by ominous (almost dystopian) shadows and light by Bert Dalhuysen, the emphasis is thus placed on the narrative of the dance itself, with a moody turn by lead Chris Harrison, who plays Prince Siegfried as the ultimate outsider-like the archetypal bad boy made flesh.

The intial scenes are exposition heavy—with the full focus on storytelling, the purists may lament the lack of constant dance gestures, but it's very much in keeping with Dawson's aesthetic choices. There's no opulence or grandeur here, either in terms of set or costume: the prince is not very courtly; more rock or movie star—he could be a young Brando, or even a Montgomery Clift, always just to the side of the action, a sullen, glowering presence amid the flirtations, frivolity and festivities of the Royal Court. Andrew Peasgood as Siegfried's best friend and henchman is the wry contrast to this—flirting with the women with small gestures of fluttering hand and angular legs.

Araminta Wraith whose imperious beauty in cerise holds no attraction for the prince—similarly, Constance Devernay's skittish imp in yellow is sidelined. Yumiko Takeshima's royal costumes are plain, egalitarian block colours which skim the dancers' bodies as they play out a gentle battle of the sexes in the first few scenes. The lack of tutus is a bold statement—rendering the work more folk tale than fairytale. Certainly, the peacocking and lusty sweep is like a mating ritual—a playground for where the young men and women line up to pick the most appealing, clapping and gesticulating, almost parodying gender traits.

Swan Lake
Sophie Martin as Odette and Christopher Harrison as Siegfried in Scottish Ballet's “Swan Lake” by David Dawson. Photograph by Andy Ross

When Siegfried, loner as he is, first meets Odette, danced by Sophie Martin, theirs is an otherwordly pas de deux, made delicate by principal Sophie Martin's constantly en pointe work and sculptural arm shaping. ‘Othering’ Odette seems a complex process, but Martin possesses the acting skills as well as flexibility to bring a flawless duality within both Odette and Odile to the piece. Odile's seductive solo is a nice contrast, as Siegfried literally falls at her feet—not exactly emasculated by her rejection—more piqued, but still enchanted, undeterred.

Harrison's work throughout is masculine without ever descending into strong-armed, thuggish posturing cliches. He has the upper body strength in steely top lines, yet elegance in his light footwork to be a new kind of male lead for “Swan Lake”—no mean feat, as so many consider either the traditional versions performed by the Bolshoi; or Matthew Bourne's updated male versions, depending on whom you ask, to be ‘definitive’ productions.

As the mood darkens, the elusive Odette returned to the lake, now swan once more, the wonderful live orchestra enhance the romanticism further. Martin and her fellow swans, all representing facets of her power and beauty, glide as though weightless—the famous fouéttes never seemed more ethereal or dreamlike. Harrison and Martin 's final dances together are seemingly ambiguous in intent, yet never less sensual or vulnerable.

Neither seem like victims, however, Dawson has created in his choreography a Prince who, far from coming across as a victim of disillusionment, lives to love another day. Meanwhile, Odette and Odile both seem self-possessed—this is the stuff of flesh and blood, not storybook caricature.

Lorna Irvine


Based in Glasgow, Lorna was delightfully corrupted by the work of Michael Clark in her early teens, and has never looked back. Passionate about dance, music, and theatre she writes regularly for the List, Across the Arts and Exeunt. She also wrote on dance, drama and whatever particular obsession she had that week for the Shimmy, the Skinny and TLG and has contributed to Mslexia, TYCI and the Vile Blog.

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