Swan Lake

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
English National Ballet
Liverpool Empire

Cygnets Credit: Annabel Moeller

If you thought the ballet was perhaps a little effete, you may want to think again; if you thought it was elitist or even inaccessible you will certainly need to think again.

A visit to Liverpool’s Empire Theatre where The English National Ballet’s touring production of Swan Lake is currently running will go a long way to dispelling such notions. For this production may just have won over at least one reviewer who previously would have needed incentives a-plenty and more to even consider the ballet.

For this is an evening of sheer delight, an evening of pure escapism. And best of all it matters not a jot if the finer technical points of ballet—of which there are many—pass you by. Swan Lake is a dream, a portal which leads directly to an ethereal world where fairy tales come to life. It’s as if one of those lavishly illustrated children’s books from Victorian times has invited you directly into its gold-leafed pages.

It would be a fruitless task but one could try not to become mesmerised by the sheer opulence of this production. The sets are just sumptuous. The palace in particularly is a rather splendid construction with its sweeping staircase and array of gothic arches, which all told add a great deal of depth to the set. Indeed every element of this production feels right.

It’s certainly hard not to be in awe of this cast of performers who hail from just about every corner of the globe: Romania, Cuba, China, Japan, and Spain among others. This level of poise is very hard-earned. It may all look so seamless, but you just know that these guys have sweated blood and tears to achieve this level of artistry and mastery. Even I could see that.

There are so many stand-out moments in this production it’s hard to know where to begin. The solo dances are models of control and finesse. The sheer volume of pirouettes—thirty-four during one solo—is enough to set your head spinning and all done so effortlessly, so gracefully. If nothing else, it’s an education in itself to just note the potential suppleness of the human form and note too its potential for elegance and its potential for expression. On the downside it left me feeling stiff, taut and badly in need of an oiling.

Despite its three-hour running time and two intervals, the evening simply whizzes by. Swan Lake somehow transcends time and space. It’s one of those shows. And how many of them are there in reality? Hamlet maybe, but they’re few and far between. Watching that iconic moment as the four cygnets become one, intertwined, twitching and tweaking their way across the stage is up there with ‘To be or not to be.’ Moments that endure.

Added to this there is also the sheer thrill of a live orchestra playing some of the most stirring music ever composed. Derek Deane’s choreography delicately fuses narrative with what feels like masterpiece upon masterpiece from the mind of one of the world’s greatest composers. It’s a heady mix indeed.

Like all the best stories, Swan Lake is elegantly simple. Essentially it’s the struggle between good and evil, the men are brave and the women as modest as they are graceful. Arguably it’s one of those shows where the story is merely a vehicle for virtuosity. The lovers may or may not reunite. Different productions interpret the work differently. The abiding impression here though is one of arriving at the pinnacle of artistic expression in terms of both music and movement.

One hundred and thirty years after its first performance, Swan Lake continues to cast its spell and it was with some reluctance I left my seat and ventured out into the streets beyond. Incentives? Who needs ‘em?

Next up it’s the Nutcracker.

Reviewer: David Sedgwick