If you only ever see one ballet in your life, there’s a good chance that you’ll choose Swan Lake, probably the most musically and visually iconic in the repertoire, but taken to another level when the then Artistic Director of the English National Ballet, Derek Deane, premièred his ambitious staging at the Royal Albert Hall in 1997, with a gala performance attended by Princess Diana just a few months before her death.
Since then the production has been seen around the world by over half a million people and the company is currently in full flight of their eighth in-the-round season at the RAH, undoubtedly the ultimate place to see it due to Deane having specifically adapted the classic choreography to suit the venue’s sheer size and scale.
With absolutely no set, the success of this highly melodramatic production is entirely reliant upon the spectacle of seeing 120 dancers, including 60 graceful swans who appear on a mist-filled ‘lake’, with mesmerising costumes by Peter Farmer and ingenious lighting design evoking the warm glow of grand candlelit balls to the cool blue rippling lake where Prince Siegfried first glimpses the enchanting white swan, Odette.
A pro at tackling the acoustic challenges which the Royal Albert Hall naturally creates, conductor Gavin Sutherland’s triumphant leadership of the ENB Philharmonic makes Tchaikovsky’s oh-so familiar score seem brand new again, as every beat is brought to life by the precision of the dancers. No matter how many revivals there have been, the synchronicity involved in each and every performance is an almost bewildering feat which more than justifies its enduring popularity.
Whilst ballet purists may turn their noses up at what seems all too commercial a production to win more than a patronising smile, the snobs are proved wrong, for surely this is exactly the kind of highly charged staging that makes little girls (and boys) desire to dedicate their lives to the art? Revenue from blockbusters like this are also vital for the ongoing success and profitability of the ENB, who, instead of simply flapping their wings in anger at the arts council funding cuts following the recession, opted for more dynamic and accessible programming on Lead Principal Tamara Rojo taking the helm as Artistic Director in 2012. It’s a strategy that seems to have paid off.
Standing in for the injured Rojo, who was originally meant to star on the night we were reviewing, I would certainly not describe it as any sacrifice to see the Japanese-born Lead Principal Erina Takahashi as Odette/Odile, for although she might not possess as much raw charisma and downright wildness as Rojo, she is nonetheless a fine actress and an undeniably brilliant technician at the peak of her career; delivering a faultless performance opposite the dashing Mexican Issac Hernández who put in a confident company debut as Prince Siegfried having previously appeared in the role as a guest star prior to joining the ENB last year.
The only downside to having so many swans is that it isn’t always easy for the audience to focus on the leads, yet Takahashi and Hernández do a marvellous job of maintaining your attention throughout and it’s testament to both their chemistry and their skill as dancers that they are able to create a palpable intimacy during the grand pas de deux in the third act, despite being looked on by an audience of over 4,000, double that of their regular home, the London Coliseum.
Takahashi’s real life husband James Streeter is meanwhile equally commanding as Odette’s captor Rothbart, whose arrival on stage is nearly always announced by a blinding flash of lighting, and no doubt the humour of having to fight Prince Siegfried for his precious white swan isn’t lost on the couple. Will Rothbart be defeated by true love? As surely as you should purchase a ringside seat for this outstanding dance delight.
Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College Rd, Kensington, London SW7 2AP, until Sunday 12th June 2016. Running time approximately 2 hours 50 minutes including two intervals. For more information and tickets visit the website.