Ballet Preljocaj in a Swan Lake with a message

Forum am Schlosspark, Ludwigsburg
July 16, 2023

More than any other of the classics, Swan Lake has proved open to successful reinterpretation. But while Angelin Preljocaj has certainly done that, he’s also remained true to the story. There are changes but, in many ways, this 2020 production is a very traditional one. There are swans. There is a lake. There is an Odette in white, and a Siegfried who falls for an Odile in black.

The movement vocabulary is uniquely Preljocaj though; and, as is his want, there is some new music, from Tchaikovsky’s Second and Fourth Symphonies, plus some modern house music from 79D. It’s just a shame it’s recorded, but needs must. There’s also some repurposing of the original, but you will not leave thinking it is anything other than Swan Lake. What is different is the context.

Rather than a princely heir reluctantly seeking a bride, Preljocaj’s Siegfried (Leonardo Cremaschi) is the son of a wealthy property developer. His father (Elliot Bussinet), a slick-haired villain if ever I saw one, and business partner, the ruthless Rothbart (Victor Martínez Cáliz), plan the construction of an industrial plant (the suggestion is a chemical works) that will destroy the lake inhabited by the swans.

Ballet Preljocaj in Swan Lake
Photo Jean-Claude Carbonne

It is a compelling scenario and the story moves along crisply and clearly. Programme notes not required; always a good sign. And while it may be 110 minutes straight through, no interval, it didn’t feel long at all.

The corporate launch party is very colourful with the women in in yellow, pink and orange, the men in fine, dark, formal waistcoats. Boris Labbé’s projected backdrop casts a different mood, however. Birds flying in an idyllic landscape are soon replaced by a high-rise cityscape. And it rains. It’s impossible to not to see the raindrops as tears for the destruction of the environment.

Far from being a regally detached queen, albeit one who wants the best for her son, Siegfried’s mother (Beatrice La Fata) is a picture of motherly love. A gentle, caring duet is in stark contrast to the ensemble dances that come with an almost Baroque geometry and precision, rather appropriate for a show taking place just a short walk from Ludwigsburg Palace, one of the largest and finest Baroque buildings in Europe. These group numbers feature a lot of precise changes of direction, straight lines and sharp angular movements of the arms. The dancers almost look like automatons. It’s anything but classical, and yet it contrives to hint at just that as, once again, Preljocaj honours but transforms.

Siegfried is a rebel who wants no part of the plans. After escaping from the party, in hoodie and joggers, he wanders around the lake where he is attacked. Seemingly thrown into the water, he is rescued by a swan (Odette, Isabel Garciá López), who he promises to protect. Quite how or why Odette has transformed into a swan is unclear, however. All we see is her being attacked by Rothbart’s heavies in a short prologue.

Ballet Preljocaj in Swan Lake
Photo Jean-Claude Carbonne

The so-called ‘White Act’ is among the most successful sections. Fashion designer Igor Chapurin’s costumes for the sixteen swans, short white skirts and tight bodices allude to the traditional tutu but feel more liberating, more wild. Yet they still look very feminine. But while they appear proud and strong, these birds also come with an underlying fragility.

The choreography is much more organic and fluid than in the human ensemble scenes. The choreography nods to Petipa and Ivanov as the swans move in ever-changing circles and diagonals, and in a striking V-formation, heads titled backwards emphasising their necks. Broken wrists become a vivid representation of swans’ necks and heads.

Very much a dance on equal terms, the pas de deux between Odette and Siegfried is quite poetic as Garciá López and Cremaschi’s bodies caress. She may be wild but she’s also beautiful. It’s no wonder he’s enchanted.

Preljocaj may switch a few things around, but he still finds time for the cygnets, who still appear as four dancers, arms linked; and to the usual music. But what fun. It has the same shapes and patterns but, starting with a waggle of imagined feathered bottoms, it’s a delight and brings a smile.

Back at the corporate headquarters, Labbé’s busy backdrop of stock exchange data tells us this is all about money. Another party, and another fabulous group dance brims with movement and energy.

Garciá López’s entry as the black swan is terrific. The daughter of his father’s business partner, she’s there to snare Siegfried and persuade him to go along with the development plans. She leaves us in absolutely no doubt she is in control. She’s a women of power and she knows it. And while a little more arrogant and abrupt than in traditional versions, she’s just as alluring. Sure enough, she captures the smitten Siegfried who thus breaks his promise to Odette.

He does try to salvage the situation but it’s all too late. In a ballet-noir ending, the plant is built, the lake poisoned, the swans die. Odette breathes her last in his arms.

Standing in front of the futuristic buildings that have risen, Siegfried wonders if he could have done more. But then they start to collapse. Just like his love for Odette, all that is left is rubble. Man has destroyed nature, love and now, it seems, the world.

Angelin Preljocaj’s quite stunning Swan Lake has little fantasy. This is a ballet where evil is real, rooted in corporate greed. The message is clear. There is always a human cost.