Krzysztof Pastor’s new Swan Lake for Polish National Ballet is a tour de force

Teatr Wielki, Warsaw
May 20, 2017

Maggie Foyer

Ballet in Poland has a proud heritage reaching back to the 17th century and continuing to the modern day. A major step forward came in 2009 when the Polish National Ballet became an autonomous entity and they continue to forge ahead, the positive energy evident in a major new production of Swan Lake choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor. The rewritten story is both radical and traditional in an intriguing new mix. The premiere showed the company in impressive form as the new version offers plenty of opportunity for both male and female dancers.

The new libretto, written by Paweł Chynowski, is set in the Imperial Russian court from 1884 to 1896 as the young Nicky, later Tsar Nikolai ll, meets his first love, Alix, Princess of Hesse (aka Odette) and is charmed by ballerina, Mathilde Kschessinska, before inheriting the throne on his father’s death and finally marrying Alix. Alongside this, the iconic choreography of Act Two remains as does the Black Swan pas de deux, although the emotional tenor is different. The national dances find a very comfortable home amongst the military manoeuvres where, apologies to Mr. Balanchine, ‘Ballet is man’ in no uncertain terms. There is drama, passion and courtly pomp and throughout, masses of wonderful dance. Tchaikovsky’s magical score has been reshaped and familiar melodies turn up in often unlikely places, played with fervour under the baton of Alexei Baklan.

Chinara Alizade as Princess Alix-Odetta and Vladimir Yaroshenko as Tsarevich Nicky Photo Ewa Krasucka
Chinara Alizade as Princess Alix-Odetta and Vladimir Yaroshenko as Tsarevich Nicky
Photo Ewa Krasucka

Pastor apportions the traditional White/Black aspects of the Swan between, Alix (Chinara Alizade), as his first and idealised love and Kschessinska (Yuka Ebihara) as his passionate mistress. We are introduced to her and fellow ballerina, Olga Preobrajenska (Emilia Stachurska), at the ball in Act One where, in company with the young hussar Volkov, Maksim Woitiul, they dance a vivacious pas de trois, the choreography freely adapted to a more fluid neo-classic style.

The Prologue portrays the childhood meeting of Alix and the boy Nicky (Vladimir Yaroshenko), when he joins her at the piano to play the Swan theme. Alix gives him her favourite toy swan before she hurriedly departs on the entrance of his angry father. He takes it from the boy and it is only at his deathbed reconciliation that this much-loved toy is returned. In the lakeside dream Tsar Alexander, played as a powerful, brooding figure by Robert Bondara, takes on aspects of Rothbart as the force dividing the Tsarevich from his love.

The Tsar later rejects the overture of marriage from the Hessian court and the despondent Tsarevich visits his guardsmen friends for companionship. Kschessinski, a renowned Polish mazurka dancer (Carlos Martín Pérez), arrives with his ballerina daughter and a brilliant display of folk dance results, including a dazzling all-male czardas. This neatly contrasts with the following white act as Nicky, seeking solitude retires to the lakeside and dreams of Alix.

Ballet School students Maja Brzeska and Cezary Wasik as young Alix and NickyPhoto Ewa Krasucka
Ballet School students Maja Brzeska and Cezary Wasik as young Alix and Nicky
Photo Ewa Krasucka

The traditional Act Two is a triumph. Alizade brings lyrical beauty to the role, sensitive arms, dove tailed feet and classically defined perfection in her arabesque. The corps are world class, 24 swan maidens, cygnets and lead swans each giving their all and dancing with full commitment. They were rightly given a rapturous ovation at the end of the act.

Several years later a masked ball is hosted by Kschessinska, a powerful woman at the height of her fame. Seeking to enhance Nicky’s dream she dresses as the Black Swan and leads him in the duet. Danced in this different setting it mixes warmth with the passion and Ebihara, a dancer of great charisma comes into her own.

The performance was a tour de force with Yaroshenko and Ebihara taking turns to thrill and delight at each technical challenge. The festivities are interrupted with visions of the dying Tsar and here the narrative falters a little as the dramatic music is somewhat at odds with the solemn mood.

Back at the lake, Yaroshenko and Alizade are reunited but the phantom Rothbart still opposes their love. In the ensuing fight, he is defeated and Nicky removes his cloak to reveal the body of his father while Odette is transformed into his beloved Alix.  The scene shifts to the bedside of the dying tsar where father and son are finally reconciled and his marriage to Alix announced. Nicky makes his peace with Mathilda in a sad and sombre duet against as apocalyptic sky. To Tchaikovsky’s Elegy in G major, Pastor has written an exquisite duet for the pair in his signature neo-classical style, bringing a moment of heightened emotion before the final coronation scene of pomp and ceremony. Throughout, the sets and costumes by Luisa Spinatelli work their magic shifting from forest to court, finding their complement in the costumes, rich in period and national detail.

This Swan Lake has been a huge undertaking and Pastor shows his skill and experience in successfully managing a largescale production. If the central love of Odette and Siegfried is less potent as it is defused into a triangular relationship, there are many compensations, not least a work that gives the Polish National Ballet the chance to show what an exciting, talented and versatile company they have become.