Swan Lake in-the-round

Choreography by Derek Deane, music by Tchaikovsky
English National Ballet
Royal Albert Hall

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Sanguen Lee as Odette and Gareth Haw as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake in the round Credit: Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Derek Deane's Swan Lake in the round Credit: Ian Gavan
Sanguen Lee as Odette and Gareth Haw as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake in the round Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Sanguen Lee as Odette and James Streeter as Rothbart in Swan Lake in the round Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Gareth Haw as Prince Siegfried and English National Ballet in Derek Deane's Swan Lake in the round Credit: Ian Gavan
Sanguen Lee as Odette and Gareth Haw as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake in the round Credit: Laurent Liotardo

The stars of the show are the corps de ballet swans, sixty of them, out of a cast of one hundred and twenty we are told, with many extras drafted in to make up the ENB numbers. Derek Deane’s Swan Lake in-the-round premièred in 1997, and has been pulling in arena show audiences wherever it plays (Palais de Versailles, Verona Arena, and more). This is its ninth season at the Royal Albert Hall.

What astonishes is the geometric patterning and precise marshalling of the corps, which can, of course, distract from the traditional Romantic ballet. Deane, when asked how he did it, says (in the programme notes) that they scaled down the egg-shaped arena on a board then arranged sixty pennies within it, factoring in the distance dancers needed to travel within the musical score. And it only took him five weeks in all, he claims. Miraculous.

Sounds simple but ingenious. But quite a logistical task for all concerned. Numbers had to be increased to face the four corners of the globe, so the cygnets are doubled, mirror images, the pas de trois becomes de douze and so on. Jugglers and acrobats, mingling with townsfolk, servants, ladies and gentlemen of the court and eight princesses, are introduced to fill the space at court.

So, how well do the leads (both have come from Semperoper Ballett with ENB’s new AD, Aaron S Watkin, both comfortable with each other) stand out against the busy moving framework in the two white acts? It depends on where you are sitting. First Soloist Gareth Haw, debuting in the role of Prince Siegfried, reminds me of Vadim Muntagirov with his long legs and fine line. There’s plenty of room for his marvellous manège.

He outshines Sanguen Lee, also debuting in the role, who seems to be interiorising her role as Odette. Possibly indicating how much she had has to repress her emotions. Where Principal Lee’s Odette is introspective, he is all passion. Her Odile brings out her fire at last. Technically smart, but personality still enigmatic.

James Streeter reprises his role of sorcerer Rothbart—he could probably do this in his sleep—a panto villain if ever there was, rising from the mist and vanishing into the mist (more stage magic), flapping about in his beetle green wings.

The lovely Michael Coleman—I’m sure his part has shrunk—is a hammy character actor delighting in his role as Tutor, straight out of music hall (Frederick Ashton is not the only one who fed off that). And I always have time for Rhys Antoni Yeomans, who plays to the crowd (gives his bum a flamboyant little wiggle, his hands a lovely flick) in his Neapolitan dance with Haruhi Otani.

The space demands larger-than-life acting. The whole company, too many to mention in all the national dances and the pas de douze, are outstanding. Tchaikovsky’s music, so inviting to move to, so infectious in its familiarity, is swooningly played by the English National Orchestra, conducted by Gavin Sutherland, high above the action at the far end. Lighting, as in all arena shows, has to be dazzling. Howard Harrison’s chandeliers and roaming colourful lights are just that.

Peter Farmer’s set is period, possibly medieval with its wooden tables and wooden thrones tucked away at the back. Could be out of Romeo and Juliet. Costumes, too. The arena space has to be left clear for the performers, but those gathered at the periphery are part of the design, moveable props. They enter down the three central aisles—I might add with some latecomers, too. Immersive it’s not meant to be. But the Royal Albert Hall is very obliging.

Three hours, four acts (the royal castle two alternating with the lake two), two intervals, fly by on Tchaikovsky’s music. And it’s a happy ending, sorry about the spoiler (you can read the synopsis on the ENB web site in any case). Odette and Siegfried’s love does for Rothbart, who is pecked away, or dissolves, into the floor.

Take the family. If you’ve never been to the ballet, or think it’s naff, this spectacular Swan Lake will blow your socks off and might just encourage you to change your mind. I know it is press night but the five-thousand-seater Hall, twice the size of the Coliseum, is buzzing with cheers and a contented audience.

Promotion literature tells us that it has been “been enjoyed by over 500,000 people worldwide” since 1997. Some intimacy is lost between the lovers, adrift amongst the swans, but not much. What is it like from the back row of the top tier I can imagine, but I’ve also been told by a Promenader that the acoustics are better up there than in the stalls. So, if the dancers are just a mathematical mirage, at least the music will be divine.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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