Sofia National Ballet dances Swan Lake
A stunning ‘swansong’ performance was the grand finale of Sofia National Ballet’s visit to Milton Keynes last night – and concluded the Bulgarian company’s first ever UK tour.
The dancers bid farewell to Milton Keynes Theatre with Swan Lake, perhaps the best-known ballet of them all, and the timeless story of good against evil proved a triumph with audience members.
Founded in 1928, Sofia National Ballet is steeped in the Russian classical tradition. Its interpretation of Swan Lake more than does justice to the famous story (fashioned from Russian folk tales), while the unforgettable music (by Russian composer Tchaikovsky) is magnificently played by the company’s full orchestra.
Swan Lake failed to impress audiences when the Bolshoi Ballet premiered it in Moscow in 1877. Criticism was levelled at dancers, orchestra and sets – not even Tchaikovsky’s dramatic score could elicit a positive reaction from audiences. Fortunately for audiences today, Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa choreographed a new version which was performed in 1895 at the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Their production was well-received and it is this revival which most companies base their staging upon today.
The Sofia National Ballet production begins with a short prologue which gives the first glimpse of Odette, Queen of the Swans (Marta Petkova) and the evil Rothbart (athletically danced by Doychin Dochev).
The principal ballerina in Swan Lake takes on one of ballet’s most incredible technical and artistic challenges: mastering both the elegance of the innocent Odette and the darker, dangerous drama of her alter ego – Odile, the Black Swan. Having seen Petkova dance as flirtatious, feisty Kitri in Don Quixote, I had high hopes this duality would be artfully achieved. She certainly lived up to my expectations, right from her first appearance as a lyrical, nervy Odette in the Prologue.
Our Prince was Nikola Hadjitanev (who played Basil to Petkova’s Kitri on Tuesday). He was confident in his royal role, his jumps and turns assured. Truly a pleasure to watch but there is possibly further potential for him to grow into the part emotionally.
Prince Siegfried celebrates his coming of age, receiving a crossbow from his mother, the Queen. Dignified divertissement dances and the antics of the exuberant Jester (Georgi Asparuhov) bring the palace to life, before the Queen informs Siegfried that now he is old enough to succeed her on the throne, he must marry. All the eligible young women in the land are invited to a ball the following evening where he must choose his bride.
Later, while hunting, Siegfried finds himself beside a lake where he sees a swan transform into a beautiful woman – Odette, Queen of the Swans. Evil sorcerer Baron Von Rothbart has cast a spell on her and her friends – they may only return to human form between midnight and dawn. The spell will be broken if a man falls in love with Odette, pledges his heart to her and agrees to marriage. Siegfried is captivated by her and, declaring his love, promises to remain faithful. Odette warns that if he breaks his vow of love, she will remain a swan forever.
The fluttering arms of coordinated swans, moving simultaneously through sweeping port de bras movements (literally: “the carriage/positioning of the arms”), is what makes Swan Lake such a spectacle. Sofia National Ballet’s corps de ballet moved together as a flock of swans, while the perfectly drilled Cygnets delighted the audience.
In the Cygnets’ ‘Dance of the Little Swans’, four of the smallest dancers perform exactly the same steps together, travelling sideways across the stage, keeping their hands linked until the final note. The choreography imitates the way baby swans huddle together for protection. Releasing their linked hands, the dancers make a valiant attempt to fly – only to end up on the floor. It’s very obvious if any individual in the quartet puts a satin-clad foot wrong but last night’s Cygnets remained perfectly synchronised.
At the palace ball, Siegfried can think of nothing but Odette. He escorts the princesses but defies his mother’s wish. He cannot choose one to marry when Odette is waiting for him.
The stunning Katerina Petrova has been one to watch all week (as Myrtha in Giselle and Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote) and she excelled as the Spanish princess, wielding her fan with poise and purpose.
After a perky Neapolitan number, a Polish mazurka and a Hungarian czardas, a fanfare announces the arrival of two mysterious guests – Rothbart and his daughter, Odile (enchanted to look exactly like Odette). Rothbart’s trickery fools Siegfried, who is convinced that Odile is his beloved Odette.
Petkova, who has shed her virginal white tutu for layers of black tulle, must at this point in the ballet portray Odile, the Black Swan. Odile is evil, lustful and possesses a seductive power. Petkova communicates this with ease. Using staccato gestures to great effect, her arm placement and moments of stillness en pointe depict a bird of prey, intent on ensnaring Siegfried.
The signature stand-out bravura moment during the Black Swan Pas de Deux is the set of 32 fouettés en tournant by Odile. This series of turns is always sure to entrance an audience as everyone silently counts. Literally ‘to whip turning’, fouettés en tournant are an impressive one legged-movement similar to a pirouette. How they differ is that the dancer whips around repeatedly on the same standing leg, using the force of the other to propel her around. So, during the preparation for the turn (when the dancer stands on a flat foot, with the supporting knee bent) the ‘working’ leg (the one not supporting the dancer’s weight) whips from the front around to the side at hip height, creating the impetus to complete each turn. This “whipping” leg is then snatched in to touch the supporting knee in the traditional pirouette position as the dancer relevés en pointe (rises onto the tips of her pointe shoes).
The technique, stamina and strength required for the legendary continuous fouettés en tournant express the confidence and intoxicating supremacy of Odile. Her commanding presence and flamboyant tricks are a stark contrast to Odette’s graceful restraint. Marta Petkova threw in multiple pirouettes amid the fouettés. A clean, precise and much-applauded effort.
Siegfried is fully coerced and announces that he will marry Odile. Rothbart is thrilled. Odile has deceived the Prince into betraying Odette and breaking the vow of true love. The curse will never be broken. Too late, Prince Siegfried realises he has been deceived and begs Odette for forgiveness. Odette embraces him but all is not resolved as Rothbart swoops down, determined that his curse should not be lifted.
Many different endings exist for Swan Lake. All of them are romantic but some are more tragic than others. Some versions see Odette choose death over everlasting enchantment. She throws herself off a cliff into the lake and Siegfried – realising he can’t bear to remain alive if he will be apart from her – also takes his own life by walking into the lake. Sofia National Ballet opts for the ending conventionally regarded as “Russian” – the overwhelming love between Odette and Siegfried triumphs. Rothbart loses his evil powers and, in a final struggle with Siegfried, dies. Surrounded by the swan maids, Odette and Siegfried celebrate daybreak and the lifting of the curse.
The performance transfixed the audience. As the stage was bathed in light for the final tableau, those seated nearby suddenly broke into loud applause, reserving their cheers for Marta Petkova.
Having been fortunate enough to review all three productions of the current tour from Sofia National Ballet, I feel I have an understanding of the Company – recognising where individual strengths lie and hopeful for future improvements. From the corps de ballet to the principal soloists, there is quite a jump in technique and artistry but, as a collective, Sofia National Ballet has given a polished and pleasurable performance every evening.
Sofia National Ballet has won hearts in Milton Keynes and is sure to be warmly welcomed if the dancers grace us with their presence on a future UK tour.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.