Composed by Tchaikovsky in the late nineteenth century, Swan Lake is a well-known ballet with an enchanting and heart-wrenching story. If you go to see Peter Schaufuss’ production with no previous knowledge of classical ballet or Swan Lake then it’s more likely that you’ll be taken with this interpretation currently on show at the Royal and Derngate. Unfortunately, this ballet/contemporary infusion is unlikely to please if you’re a traditional ballet lover.
Originally a ballet in four acts, this show has been condensed into two, and consequently the story telling is weak. Without reading the summary provided on the cast list to fill in the blanks, the show seems fragmented and disjointed. The story follows a young Prince (Thaddaeus Low) who is being pressured by his mother the Queen (Katherine Watson) to find a bride. He stumbles upon a moonlit lake and finds a group of young men and women who have been cursed to live as swans by day and humans by night. The Prince falls in love with their swan leader, known as the Swan Girl (Ryoko Yagyu), who turns back into a swan at the break of day. The Prince vows to marry the girl, but he does not count on the appearance of Sorcerer Rothbart (Josef Vesely), the man who placed the curse in the first place, who tricks the Prince in to falling in love with his daughter, the Black Swan (Yoko Takahashi), instead.
Aside from the entrance of the swans, which was well staged and showed promise of elegance, the swan lake scene itself was a disappointment. There was no romance between the Prince and the Swan Girl, and a lot of their choreography is floor work which, to those seated in the stalls, simply looks like a lot of awkward shuffling around side by side. If you’re sitting in the dress circle and looking down on them, however, it may provide a better angle. In addition, possibly the most recognisable element of this scene – the swans dancing in a row – was replaced with a heavy footed contemporary routine that clashed with the music, and not in a good way. While Tchaikovsky may well have been open to interpretations, I doubt this is what he had in mind.
In terms of the characterisations, the strongest are the Queen, the two jesters, whose acrobatic tomfoolery is impressive at times but could be a bit of an annoyance at others, and the four princesses from Act two, whose performances are the strongest and most enjoyable in the show. The Prince doesn’t overly impress until his very last dance, when all of sudden he becomes an explosion of energy, strength, and passion, and the drama he creates at the end almost compensates for the drama missing throughout the show.
When classic stories are revamped and dragged into the twenty first century it can sometimes be a success, but there are art forms that should perhaps be left well alone. While opposites may attract, ballet and contemporary dance simply do not fit comfortably together and they are best kept apart. This production had its moments of effortless excellence, but it did not live up to expectations.