A ballet spectacle: Swan Lake in the round

English National Ballet at the Royal Albert Hall, London
June 1, 2016

David Mead

Over 120 performers including jugglers, acrobats and, of course, 60 swans. Yes, Derek Deane’s Swan Lake in the round is back at the Royal Albert Hall, and as usual it’s packing them in.

It is a spectacle, and it is a production you should go and see at least once, actually probably twice, once close up from downstairs and once from up in the gods so you can get the full effect of Deane’s big-scale patterns. But whether it’s a Swan Lake for you rather depends on just what you are looking for.

If you want a well-told story with some decent characterisation, then you are likely to be disappointed. The only nods towards a set are a couple of thrones, a few chairs, and some drapes hanging from the orchestra platform at one end of the arena. That undoubtedly detracts at times. The lake scenes work very well in the round. The combination of the dry ice and lighting really does make it look like the surface of the lake is moving. Rothbart’s emergence as if coming from the deep like the supernatural being he is, is startlingly effective. His later denouement, disappearing back into the depths is equally impressive.

Alina Cojocaru and English National Ballet in Swan Lake in the roundPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru and English National Ballet in Swan Lake in the round
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Act I and (to a lesser extent) Act III could be almost anywhere, though. And there are times when important things easily get lost among the huge throng that is now the court, the Queen telling Siegfried it was time he found himself a bride being just one example.

Many dancers find Siegfried a tricky character to imbue with much depth; the vast spaces of the Albert Hall just add another layer to the problem. Osiel Gouneo is a fabulous technician with vast jumps, clean landings, and smooth as smooth can be turns. He’s also an excellent partner. But I didn’t really get much in the way of personality and I struggled to believe.

The huge space does give Rothbart plenty of space to ‘fly’ though, and James Streeter used it to the full, charging around to great menacing effect. All the Act III ensemble dances benefit from the extra room too.

English National Ballet's Swan Lake in the roundPhoto ASH
English National Ballet’s Swan Lake in the round
Photo ASH

Odette/Odile faces the same problems of course, although here there is a bit more to grab hold of. And Alina Cojocaru grabbed firmly with both hands. Initially, there seemed a little more uncertainty than we are accustomed to and a couple of noticeable wobbles, but she soon put all that behind her as she blossomed wonderfully in the Black Swan pas de deux. At last the evening lit up. The fireworks and big smiles from the pair of them were worth waiting for, with a particularly notable warp speed set of fouettés from her, done while negotiating a tight circle to make sure everyone got a front view for part of them.

The leads were backed up excellently by the huge cast with tumblers, jugglers and very good children from Tring Park School to the ladies and gentlemen of the court. Everyone looked well-drilled and right on the button (and it’s not that often you get principal dancers among the swans). Deane’s upping the numbers largely works well. The Act I pas de trois multiplied four times and the two sets of four cygnets stand out in particular. And, of course, there are those 60 swans, which do look at their best head on to the orchestra, or from above.

I can’t say I’m desperately keen on the happy ending, but it’s difficult to see any other way of doing it in this space; and Rothbart’s demise is, if anything, even more impressive than his first entrance.

But best to put character and story a little to one side. This is a really a Swan Lake that’s about dancing and spectacle, pure and simple. Go looking for that and you won’t be disappointed.

As one might expect, the English National Ballet Philharmonic sounded glorious in the Hall, under the baton of Gavin Sutherland who made light of having his back to the action.

Swan Lake in the round continues at the Royal Albert Hall to June 12. For details visit www.ballet.org.uk.