Swan Lake remains at the heart of the classical ballet repertoire. Its choreography by Marius Petipa and music by Tchaikovsky have ensured its place in any dance company worth its claim to pre-eminence. And the music’s 19th century blend of the classical with the romantic has ensured audiences with a love of great music if only a passing interest in dance. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the growth of contemporary choreography and the increased number of smaller dance companies have rather reduced the appetites of both dancers and audiences for this extremely demanding, long, old, and often tired ballet. I include myself among those who have felt they had seen enough Swan Lakes to happily miss the next one. It is with this in mind that I say how suddenly I have been swept off my feet and made to believe again in the evergreen nature of the work, its music, its potential for surprise.

Liam Scarlett and his designer John Macfarlane have completely transformed the bones of the original. And the dancers of The Royal Ballet have en-fleshed those bones with gleaming perfection. At the least, it is humbling to witness such transformation. At the most, it affirms that great art – if faithful to the difficult process that produces beauty, joy and unpredictability – cannot stale, nor must it.

However, I begin with a small quibble. The added prologue supposedly shows a curse put on Siegfried as a child (much like in Sleeping Beauty the spell at the christening). But this tableau is neither one thing nor another; too short to show anything more than a sort of flash in the pan (and already the ballet is too long to extend it or add anything more). While distracting from the overture, in my opinion it doesn’t really contain any dance element or dramatic interest.

Set in an evergreen outdoor court, Act I is brilliant, full of colour, of sunny expectation and the welcoming of youthful guests for a birthday party. But MacFarlane has made the trees look like Cyprus trees – the trees that adorn graves.

The corps de ballet of guests are in late 19th century costumes with graceful long waists and delicately draped bustles. Cream in colour these hint at the white tutus these corps dancers will be wearing as swans in Act II. Against such youthful colour and the greenery of nature sits the stern Queen Mother on marbled steps. Apparently under the wily guidance of her reptilian advisor, Von Rothbart, she is encased in metallic and bejewelled black. Her steely resolve that her son should marry one of the princesses is well mimed, frightening in its threat. This production enlarges the presence of Bennet Gartside’s Rothbart. He floats in and out of all the scenes as a black cloud, ever hovering over the sunniest of moments, a serpent in the garden.   His role is more as a mime artist than a dancer but his movements are eloquent indications of intention.

It is Prince Siegfried’s birthday party; and the person who best represents the scene’s cheerful freshness is Alexander Campbell, in the role of Benno, close friend to the Prince. Costumed in red, he is a bright spirit against the greens, blacks, whites and golds. .He is squirrel-like in his busy work of greetings, be-friendings, with jetés and endlessly rapid turns, leaps, entrechats. He greets the two princesses, Siegfried’s sisters played by Francesca Hayward and Akane Takada, and together they perform what for me is one of the highlights of the ballet: a pas de trois which, on its own, would be worth the price of the ticket. Each one is superlative. Hayward is a winged bird; Takada a dancing flame, alluring, sparked and precise in all her movements, holding her balance as if perched forever en pointe. I gasped only to see her repeat this in the third act where the same three again present an even more difficult pas de trois. The friend I was with also noted the miraculous timing of Campbell in relation to the orchestra (or perhaps vice-versa): his landings from complex jumps were exactly on the beat of a difficult passage of music.

Act II follows seamlessly as the cypress garden morphs into a forest above which an eerie moon sends shadowed light about the stage. The entrance of the whiter- than-white swans startles against the ebony expanse beneath that misshapen moon. The haunting stage set chills. And against this is played out the intertwined harmony of music and dance. The complete oneness among the dancers, and between the dancers and the orchestra, is a wonder of this production; the dancers paying homage to Tchaikovsky’s music and the musicians showing deference to the incredible difficulty of the dancing. I had never heard Tchaikovsky played with such clarity and sharp definition – as if the pointed feet reinvigorated the score.

We are used to seeing The Royal Ballet’s extraordinary corps de ballet; however in this production, and most particularly in Act II, they are called upon to ratchet up their performance even further. They dance in every scene, each of which demands a costume change and a different dramatic portrayal. In their long Act II swan scene they move as one, stand achingly still as one, express flight and glide as one and are given an unforgiving choreography to execute as one. This is the stuff of miracle. I don’t know enough to discuss how much Scarlett has altered the choreography. However, I was hoping to see the four cygnets do their usual charming in-synch pas de quatre criss-crossing of legs, arms, feet and heads unaltered, which indeed they did, but more starched, with more delicacy added to the syncopation. So while the same, it was magically different. In microcosm a reflection of the entire old/new ballet.

Principals outshine themselves in Act III, set inside a grand, golden and glowing audience room. The set is breath-taking, and the divertissement of elegantly costumed dancers: Russians in fur hats and fur trimmed long coats; flirtatious princesses in pastel nets – one with little diamond shaped pieces on top of her tutu which catch the light and shimmer to reflect her coquettish eye flutters. Rich intensity and stomping heels for the Hungarians – surprise after surprise with costumes reflecting choreography unique to each cultural group. But at the top of a grand staircase the broken hearted swan appears. The world of the darkened forest soon interrupts festivity.

Marianela Nuñez as Odette/Odile deserves her own review with technique and acting worthy of the roles she performs. Her arabesque lines and balances are breathtaking, her pirouettes beautiful. And there is the difficult dramatic contrast between (as she herself puts it) – the “floatiness” of Odette and the fiery sharpness of Odile. There is also, of course, the challenge in the third act of 32 perfectly executed fouetté turns which one felt could continue forever if the music had allowed! Her Odile, particularly, sparkled in its display of extraordinary and flawless technical prowess.

Everyone in the audience was charmed by Vadim Muntagirov’s Siegfried, with his multiple tours en l’air and grands jetés, all performed effortlessly with an added sweetness of expression wholly maintained. As has been elsewhere noted: there is a dramatically appropriate chemistry between these two leads that is riveting. He is a gift to the Company.

This attempt at a review is overly exuberant. I can’t help that. It was a discovery to find that something I had so dismissed had risen like a phoenix into some sort of glorious form. Above all, it is a salute to every single participant from the marvellous Liam Scarlett and John MacFarlane to every musician in the orchestra and each dancer who underwent exhausting rehearsal and performance regimes to fulfil the demands of Tchaikovsky and Petipa. And all for love. Certainly not filthy lucre! This is what the British – and only the British – do best: they fill every detail with loving attention, until all those details add up to some new density of meaning. I just don’t know how that continues to survive the modern pressures of time and productivity.

I saw this production through a live cinema transmission. We left while Covent Garden audiences continued extensive standing ovations and called for more bows.

Susannah Harris-Wilson

16th June 2018