Varna International Ballet’s Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
February 22 & 23, 2024

Highlight of Varna International Ballet’s Northampton visit was undoubtedly Swan Lake (February 22) a reconstruction as far as possible (the choreography is long lost) of Tchaikovsky’s original production created for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877, reversing all the subsequent musical changes, including the many made in 1895 by Marius Petipa and Riccardo Drigo.

Among the more startling differences is that the White Swan pas de deux ends not softly but with a fast gallop as Odette flies away. Later, the Black Swan pas de deux is missing the familiar coda, because it’s been put back in its original Act I home. And there are a lot more changes, additions and deletions from what modern audiences are used to.

It does sound odd at times but largely because it’s unexpected and unfamiliar but, musically and dramaturgically, it does work. One reason for that is likely down to the production also reverting back to the story’s original roots and meaning, which lay in legends about knights found in Germanic folklore. That’s most obvious here in that rather than presenting her son Siegfried with a crossbow on his coming of age, she knights him.

Varna International Ballet’s Swan Lake
Photo Varna International Ballet

Indeed, there is no suggestion on a hunt at all. Rather, Siegfried, having rejected the four prospective brides invited by his mother, simply heads for the lake in search of Odette, who he’s become fascinated by, having read about her.

Here, Odette is the daughter of a good fairy swan who fell in love with a knight, but whose parents died after being bewitched by an evil sorcerer. So, she was not turned into a swan, but was one all along. Her backstory is neatly illustrated during the overture, when Siegfried is seen wandering around, his head deep in a book.

Another change is that Baron von Rothbart is also the Prince’s tutor, and so appears throughout. In the opening act in the castle grounds, he’s there in person, Konsta Roos doing a neat turn in becoming increasingly drunk, and as a shadowy kite seen swooping ominously over the proceedings on the projected backdrop. He’s also at the Act III ball from the very beginning. When Sigfried rejects the women brought along by his mother, there’s very much a sense of Rothbart whispering to her, ‘I think I know someone he might go for.’ And, of course, he does.

Varna International Ballet’s Swan Lake
Photo Varna International Ballet

Martina Prefetto is a somewhat cool Odette. Although more expression in her back and face would have been nice, she is nonetheless a fine dancer. But, when they first meet, while Vittorio Scole’s Sigefried might be smitten by her, there wasn’t a huge feeling it was reciprocated. The happy end, which sees them in each other’s arms, was a very different story.

But what a wonderfully beguiling Odile Prefetto offered. Here was a real temptress, casting her spell, snaring her prey. The way her excellent fouettés travelled towards Sigefried made it feel like they were a dagger aimed straight at him. Also super was the way she glanced occasionally at the audience, her smile seeming to say ‘I’ve got him. And you know I’ve got him.’

Scole makes for a young, handsome prince. Perhaps the characterisation could have been deeper but his leaps and turns were spot on, the former generally softly and quietly landed, and he’s a very considerate partner.

Standing tall elsewhere was Roberta Pereira’s solo as the Spanish bride. Not only is the choreography of the bullfight-inspired dance complete with two matadors and red muletas fabulous, so was her vivid dancing and infectious smile. Her carriage and presence also stood out when doing double duty as a swan.

A little weirdly from a narrative perspective, the four Brides’ solos come after Siegfried has met Odile, though.

Luc Burns was an excellent Benno von Somerstein, to give him his full name. He too leapt and turned well, especially during the Act I pas de trois, a dance neatly interrupted by a ‘time stands still’ moment when we see Siegfried already dreaming of Odette.

The staging is thin when compared to the big companies, but if you’re only dancing Swan Lake one night before moving on or staging another full-length ballet, it’s not likely to be anything else. A sense of place is conveyed largely through projected backdrops, on which moving water is a rather pleasing presence, be it the gently flowing river outside the castle, or the moody, and later stormy, lake. The splendour of the castle and ball is rather lost, however.

The Varna International Ballet Orchestra also sounded a little thin on occasion but, conducted by Peter Tuleshkov, they gave as good rendition of Tchaikovsky’s score as you are likely to get from a twenty-piece ensemble.

Varna International Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty
Photo Varna International Ballet

Despite good performances from Andrea Conforti (Princess Aurora), Mirko Andreutti (Prince Desiré) and Roos (Carabosse), the previous evening’s performance of The Sleeping Beauty paled in comparison.

The prologue is a bright as befits the christening of a princess but there is rather a lot of mime and it does drag rather. The four Maids of Honour (fairies in most productions) danced neatly, although their choreography is simplified, as indeed is that for the ensemble dances. The best moments came from Luc Burns as a preening Cattalabutte, constantly fussing over appearance or admiring himself in a mirror. If only he had taken as much care with that guest list.

Things perk up enormously with the arrival of Carabosse. Another example of a male playing the villainous role, he had a ball, his character flitting between being old hag complete with walking stick and magically springing to life and dancing freely.

Conforti was a pleasing Aurora, although her balances in the Rose Adagio were shaky and of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety, with no attempt to put the arms in fifth after each promenade. But then her suitors (why are they identically dressed?) were stood so close they would put anyone off. And in the later Grand pas de deux, she proved she could balance on one leg quite happily.

The costumes are as variable as the dancing with some particularly unfortunate wigs. Unlike in Swan Lake, the lack of numbers makes the stage feel a little threadbare, especially in the big group scenes.

But it is easy to knock companies like Varna International Ballet. With the help of promoter Raymond Gubbay, they do a fine job taking classical ballet around the country, and to many towns and cities that the big Arts Council funded companies do not (the present tour takes in twenty-one venues over nine weeks), and are never going to, reach, except in cinemas. And that is a poor substitute for the live thing.

They also give young dancers opportunities they quite likely will otherwise got get. Northampton’s Derngate had a healthy audience for The Sleeping Beauty and looked about full for Swan Lake; an audience who were especially appreciative of the latter. That says a lot.

Read more about Varna International Ballet’s Swan Lake and its music here.

Varna International Ballet continues on tour to February 29, 2024.