An outpouring of poetry: David Dawson’s Swan Lake

Scottish Ballet at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow
19 April 2016
Maggie Foyer

Watching David Dawson’s Swan Lake, I wondered why he hadn’t tackled it earlier as his love of beauty and Art Nouveau swirl of movement are so ideally suited to the swan aesthetic. Thankfully artistic director, Christopher Hampson, has done the asking and Scottish Ballet now have a gem of a ballet to add to their repertoire.

Dawson’s concept cuts to the chase: love is all and choreography is the medium. Dispensing with the trappings of the royal court and the Manichean model of good and evil, it remains a young man’s rite of passage. He stands alone in the opening scene, staring out at the audience, a heart full of longing and ends in the same place only this time his head thrown back and his body rigid with despair knowing his dream is in ashes.

The story is very human but the mythical element persists. The mysterious and ethereal woman who appears at the lakeside will be his as long as he holds in trust the precious gift, the ruby stone, she has given him. Give it to another and she is lost forever. As in the traditional story, he is confused by the sensual Odile and, believing her to be his love, gives her the stone.

Scottish Ballet in David Dawson's Swan LakePhoto Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet in David Dawson’s Swan Lake
Photo Andy Ross

So much of Dawson’s previous work seems to have been a preparation for this outpouring of poetry especially in the white acts and in the pas deux, which Dawson was surely born to choreograph. His signature elements: the expansion of the upper body, stretching sinews to breaking point so limbs become wings, the lifts that dive and swoop like a bird and arms that break at wrist and elbow to weave into iconic shapes, all now find a natural home.

His swan queen, perfectly realised in Sophie Martin, is dressed in Yumiko Takeshima’s most exquisite costume to date. Martin is a magical creature with a body that folds and wraps like silk while throbbing with power and strength. The duets flow seamlessly; soaring lifts arise almost without preparation and transform fluidly into the next pose, pointes skim the stage like a skater and limbs seem to have no limits to their extension. Losing none of the poetry, Dawson has shaped ballet technique to chime with contemporary sentience.

The music played with passion under the baton of Richard Hooner has additions and edits to neatly fit into two acts of around an hour each. Dawson’s choreography remains faithful to the dynamics and the orchestral colour while making Tchaikovsky’s much-loved score seem new-minted. Odette’s solo is exquisitely structured, with each nuance valued, the four swans are no longer just bobbing marionettes and he excels with the dance of the two swans who relish what his choreography offers to long limbs.

Sophie Martin as Odette and Christopher Harrison as Siegfried in Scottish Ballet's Swan LakePhoto Andy Ross
Sophie Martin as Odette and Christopher Harrison as Siegfried in Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake
Photo Andy Ross

Dawson now with several full length ballets under his belt has been honing his craft with gratifying results. He revitalises the outmoded rigidity of a traditional corps as semi structured movement alternating with satisfying moments of uniformity in iconic lines of swans. The opening scene presents its own challenges in sustaining the effervescence of the young couples and the reluctant Prince. Here he translates traditional set pieces to modern tastes as the men demonstrate their prowess and the women respond in light-hearted banter. Using the music from Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux adds punch to the variations with Benno, Andrew Peasgood, an obvious winner.

Into the party scene where the grandeur of the music is brought to its senses with a touch of irony. Benno playing matchmaker introduces three inamoratas to the Prince: Araminta Wraith, a sultry sophisticate, Bethany Kingsley-Garner heaving with passion and an outrageously flirty Constance Devernay. The arrival of Odile borne aloft by four masked acolytes in spectacular fashion brings drama and contrast and the grand pas de deux gives Christopher Harrison his moment of virtuosic ecstasy. Reworked to the same music it provides a splendid moment of triumph for Martin as Odile and plenty of thrills.

Back at the lake and Harrison expresses his despair in a solo that matches the sorrowful depths of the music. During the final duet Odette realises their love is doomed and as John Otto’s set of tangled scaffolding descends in layers, the Prince is contained in his human world and Odette remains in hers. The Scottish Ballet have excelled themselves in this very challenging work, the tiny swan corps of ten dancers filled the stage with passion while the men both in their strong partnering and their dance matched in commitment.

David Dawson’s version has taken a radical new path in this revisioned classical style. Stripped down to its pure essence, the ballet has been reborn both in movement and structure, retaining the beauty in line and form, not denying virtuosity and valuing expression. To say it is the best of all possible worlds smacks of hyperbole but it’s heading in the right direction.