A magical evening: English National Ballet’s Swan Lake

London Coliseum
January 12, 2023

English National Ballet’s Swan Lake (by Derek Deane) opens to an orderly, hierarchical utopia. Folksy peasants and elegant courtiers exist harmoniously in this universe, the distinctions of class offering opportunities for riotous dancing.

On the opening evening of the Coliseum season, the first act saw particularly fine performances by a sprightly Francesca Velicu as Lead Peasant and a radiant Precious Adams, each injecting the ensemble numbers with direction and energy.

All three members of the Act one trio – Julia Conway, Katja Khaniukova, Erik Woolhouse – were eager and buoyant, although perhaps Woolhouse could do with a smidge more polished finish and Conway’s efficiency can sometimes feel workmanlike. Khaniukova put in an inspired turn, however. Her exquisite upper body work, the musically alert use of the head, silky arm deployed with speaking intelligence, is the yarn from which dreams are spun. 

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in Swan Lake
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Emma Hawes’ Odette is spun from the same ilk. With arms like weeping tendrils, a supple back and an easily legible face she is a wonderful combination of imposing lines (she is a tall dancer) and tender vulnerability. As Odile, she is almost kittenish. She’s teasing and playful, fatally mischievous as opposed to ravenously malicious. I will admit that, though I found her self-effacing manner on occasion moving, there were moments when I longed for a glimpse of Odette’s ennobling heroism and Odile’s assertive boldness. Something perhaps of the role’s patrician hauteur, of its stateliness. But this is a personal preference and Hawes, a newly promoted principal dancer, has years ahead of her to formulate her own answers to the role’s many puzzling enigmas.

Hawes was partnered ably by Aitor Arrieta’s Prince Siegfried. On his own though Arrieta, another newly promoted principal, also seems to be feeling his way into the role. His overriding expression in Act 1 is that of petulant ennui. He is unshakeable, despite his tutor’s (Fabian Reimar) best efforts, from his self-imposed melancholy. And when his initial attempts to hunt are foiled by an incoming flock of swans there is a hint of a childish curl on his lips.

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in Swan Lake
Photo Laurent Liotardo

The ‘emo prince’ is one of ballet’s well-worn stereotypes, but others have worn it with more imaginative felicity. Arrieta’s is not a prince in existential crisis or one straining to contemplate life’s ‘big’ question. Rather his ennui feels skin-deep. His dancing too, in Act 1 particularly, also feels too bulky and angular. Put simply, there isn’t quite enough rich dimension yet to character or to movement. But he settles into the role and by the end his youthful fascination with Hawes Swan Queen finds something of the role’s tragic depth.

Finally, huge kudos to the company as a whole. Throughout the evening, faces quickly become familiar. Peasants become swans. Swans become brides and Spanish dancers, before reverting to swan form again by the evening’s end. But the metamorphic labour of slipping from one character to another never shows. And that is magic.

Magic too is the English National Ballet Philharmonic, brilliantly led by conductor Daniel Parkinson.

English National Ballet’s Swan Lake is at the London Coliseum to January 22, 2023.