Swan Lake is the epitome of a bucket-list ballet and the English National Ballet production currently in residence at Milton Keynes Theatre is simply stunning.
I must confess to a great affinity for the perennially popular Swan Lake having learned a lot of the repertoire in workshops as a youngster; performed many of the roles in school shows and compulsively viewed countless versions in theatres, on television and online. The swell of the overture is enough to transfix me — listening to Tchaikovsky’s haunting score soothed this scholar during many years of revision throughout school and university. Together, the combination of story, music, choreography and staging makes the ballet a truly touching masterpiece.
Of course, possessing such zeal and knowledge means that with each cumulative performance of Swan Lake I am privileged enough to see, the potential to be disappointed grows. Fortunately, English National Ballet’s touring production had me enraptured on opening night. In fact, I swanned out of the auditorium appropriately moved by such an emotional evening and in awe of the incredible talent within the Company.
English National Ballet boasts 65 dancers from 26 countries and is dedicated to bringing first-class dance to as many audience members as possible. In 2013, the dancers travelled over 3,900 miles around the UK (and got through 4,992 pointe shoes!). The Company has been visiting some of the cities on its touring circuit for over 60 years and continues to enchant theatre-goers while passing on the “ballet bug” to aspiring dancers.
The calibre of artists throughout English National Ballet is tremendous. Right at the very top, artistic director and lead principal dancer Tamara Rojo attracts audiences who have followed her since her epic stardom with The Royal Ballet. Similarly, lead principal dancer Alina Cojocaru’s reputation as a shining jewel in the crown of The Royal Ballet (before she gracefully bowed out last year to join Rojo at English National Ballet) precedes her.
The exceptionally gifted Cojocaru effortlessly eased her way through Derek Deane’s choreography in the dual role of Odette/Odile on opening night. Her portrayal of the innocent and pure Princess Odette — cursed to spend daylight hours as a swan by an evil sorcerer — was matched by a beguilingly seductive Odile (the flashy doppelgänger who manipulates Odette’s love interest, thwarting the white swan’s desperate bid for freedom).
Cojocaru makes Odette’s vulnerability palpable with delightful delicacy. Offering the perfect paragon for learning to achieve “swan arms”, she articulates her upper body and arms with fluency and fluidity, rippling the movement from right between her shoulder blades all the way through to the tips of her fingers. An elegantly elongated neck, a demure lowering of the head and a wary gaze towards her male suitor and the Odette persona is complete.
As the bewitching Odile, Cojocaru discovers her dark side and thrills in the role’s signature successive turns (known as fouettés en tournant – a series of showy turns, each made with a whipping movement of the leg). Those expressive arms take on a more dramatic verve to complement the black swan’s malevolent power and Cojocaru’s stage presence adopts the necessary ostentatious air as the immoral seductress goes for what she wants.
Our Prince Siegfried was the unbelievably light-footed Alejandro Virelles. This Cuban dancer has just joined English National Ballet as a Principal this season from Boston Ballet. Blessed with particularly long, lean limbs and staggering control, he and Cojocaru are well-suited.
Admittedly, I have seen more morose interpretations of the Prince’s adage variation (a slow, sad solo section in Act 1, in which the Prince laments the news that he must marry wisely and ascend the throne). Still, Virelles’ undeniable control and swift, sweeping steps across the stage gave his Prince an appropriately regal, contemplative quality.
During the later bursts of bravura choreography, Virelles had a couple of shaky moments which drew sharp intakes of breath from those sat around me. However, the elevation of his leaps and preciseness of easily executed multiple pirouettes made up for these slight imperfections.
Cojocaru and Virelles may make for a beautiful pairing but a quick glance at the Principal casting for the run offers reassurance that the central couple in every performance will impress.
Principals aside and the dynamic divertissement dances and tight ensemble work showcased in ‘Swan Lake’ make it a marathon production for the whole Company. I particularly enjoyed the Act 1 Pas de Trois (featuring a sprightly Vitor Menezes ably partnering Laurretta Summerscales and Alison McWhinney) and the pleasingly polished yet pluckily playful Polonaise. Highlights in the Act 3 palace scene include the Princesses and an especially exuberant Neapolitan number (vivacious Crystal Costa certainly knows how best to brandish a tambourine).
The term corps de ballet literally means “body of the ballet”. In Swan Lake the spectacle of the swans moving in seamless synchronicity illustrates just how accurate this description is. English National Ballet’s disciplined, tutu-clad, female dancers move together as one, carrying the dramatic weight of the ballet as they flock into formations along the moonlit lakeside.
I had hoped that seeing the Company dance once again — accompanied by the marvellous Orchestra of English National Ballet, in perhaps the world’s favourite classical ballet — would help me to decide who to nominate for the ‘People’s Choice Award’ in English National Ballet’s annual Emerging Dancer competition. Alas, there are so many excellent artists to choose from, each with their own certain something, that my conundrum continues!
Whether you are a Swan Lake specialist or have yet to dip your toes into the drama and romance, English National Ballet’s current production is a splendid interpretation.
English National Ballet’s Swan Lake continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 15th November 2014.
This review also featured on the Milton Keynes Citizen website.
Georgina Butler is a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.