Opera House, Stockholm
April 8, 2017
This was not the weekend to celebrate a new ballet. The tragic events of Friday afternoon, when a delivery truck was wilfully driven into crowds on a busy pedestrian street, meant the premiere was cancelled as central Stockholm went into lockdown. However, the matinee on Saturday, now with the premiere cast, went ahead with the performance dedicated to the victims of the attack.
Pär Isberg’s The Dream of Swan Lake is not Swan Lake but I don’t think it will disappoint those who want a seriously good evening of ballet plus a story of contemporary resonance. Isberg has written two of the company’s best loved ballets: The Nutcracker or Peter and Lotta’s Christmas, and Pippi Longstocking, but he is little known outside his native Sweden. This is a pity as there are few choreographers who shape classical ballet to suit modern sensibilities with such verve and intelligence. Tchaikovsky’s magical score is also given a make-over. Act Two is left intact, but other sections are reassigned and overtures and music previously used for stage business, are rechoreographed with exciting results.
The revisioning of the plot centres on a restaging of the ballet. Emotions are on a twin track, dipping in and out of the traditional tale as the love between the Prince and Odette and the manipulations of the malevolent Rothbart are transferred to the choreographer and dancers. The dark tones of manipulation and desire find new guises. The choreographer, Calum Lowden, intriguingly named Fred, promotes his protègè, Desislava Stoeva, to the role of Odette/Odile ahead of the company principals making an implacable enemy in premiere dancer, Vahe Martirosyan, now demoted to the role of Rothbart. Martirosyan has a gift of a role: dancing to impress in the company ‘audition’, expressing his fury in his Rothbart guise, switching to the cool seducer when partnering the protègè and showing his true colours in the final scene as he advances on a new young dancer – his next victim.
In the studio, the choreographer auditions for his new production. The company dancers get a full work out, competing to be seen at their best. The Pas de Trois is included and Minji Nam and Moe Nieda offer crisp, sparkling solos with Jonatan Davidsson bringing a powerful male presence and tough virtuosity. The highlight comes when the principal dancers, Sarah-Jane Brodbeck and Martirosyan, enforce their status dancing a newly choreographed Black Swan Pas de Deux to the music Tchaikovsky originally wrote for the duet, but better known in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. What a treat to see how well Isberg has fashioned it musically and choreographically in a neo-classical style, crisp and elegant but bristling with energy and culminating in a triumphal finish. Brockbeck uses her precision and speed to brilliant effect and Martirosyan attacked his solo with venom.
In the central ballerina role, Stoeva has her full quota of dance: two grand pas, the solos, even the fouettés, but no longer a black/white stereotype as she constantly vacillates in her affections for Fred and her dance ambitions centred around Rothbart/Martirosyan. A powerful dancer with a natural authority, she gave a fine dance performance but struggled to convince as the naïve, young hopeful.
Lowden made a most convincing choreographer alternating delight and despair with his dancers. In the elegiac introduction to Act Two, he allows his emotions to rise, and in the duet he gave his passions full rein in a sensitive and moving interpretation although not always reciprocated by Stoeva and hampered by the stodgy tempi. The swan corps, the backbone of the ballet, in tutus that feature pleats and folds rather than feathers, were beautifully drilled.
In the third act, excitement and intrigue go hand in hand at the after-show party. It’s always an opportunity to display fashion clothes and designer, Jérôme Kaplan, and scenographer, Lars-Åke Thessman, move to centre stage. The set, a pillared ballroom overlooking Stockholm’s skyline, offsets Kaplan’s costumes, that feature distinctive colour combinations and stylish cut permeated with Parisian chic. The ballet director, a cameo role for Jenny Nilson, dominates in a role, not far removed from the Queen Mother in the original, that climaxes with her graciously poised atop a pile of men.
The dance delights are many. A cohort of young waiters bearing origami swans on silver salvers entertain in a pastiche waiters’ gallop, the protègè in the guise of Odile enters in a feather cloak and the Black Swan pas de deux, now the traditional choreography, becomes a triangular tussle with Stoeva coming into her own in a fiery performance. Emily Slawski and Dmitry Zagrebin get a party piece and a platform for virtuoso thrills while Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance becomes an erogenous display for Rothbart. They say the devil gets the best tunes!
The final act takes us to the heart of the matter. As the stage crew clear up after the performance and the swans drift back to the dressing rooms, Fred and his protègè realise they were meant for each other and leave the theatre to find a new life together. Isberg has created a ballet that is very different from the traditional version but for those who love Swan Lake it remains a truly satisfying evening.