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English National Ballet: Swan Lake – Palace Theatre, Manchester 

Reviewer: Jo Beggs 

Music: Tchaikovsky

Choreographer: Derek Deane (after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov)

Conductor: Gavin Sutherland

It’s rare to start a review with a nod to the Designer, but Peter Farmer’s set and costumes are the first thing to wow you in this sumptuous production. Like a Claude Lorraine painting, Act One’s palace courtyard is an old-world and glorious backdrop, packed with dancers in richly decorated fairy-tale costumes. Farmer died in 2017, but this English National Ballet production has been in the company’s repertoire for over two decades and is a fitting legacy for a designer and artist whose work embraced the traditional, played with wonderful colours and brought this German folktale, and many other stories, to life. Against this, Derek Deane’s re-working of Marius Pepita’s (1818-1910) choreography unfolds.

Think classical ballet, and Swan Lake is what comes to mind. It’s familiarity has led many Directors to give it a bit of a twist, a contemporary edge, but Deane’s production plays it completely straight, embracing tradition, even when that tradition is vaguely ridiculous.

A princess is stolen away by a magician who is half-man, half-bird. He turns her into a swan. Up at the palace the queen is trying to get the prince married off. It’s his birthday and the queen gives him a crossbow so he heads out to hunt a swan. But rather than kill the Queen of the Swans (who is of course the princess – actually, they’re all magical changelings) he falls in love with her. It’s a fairy-tale. It doesn’t end well.

The wicked sorcerer Rothbart (Junor Souza) is here a pantomimic character with sweeping wings, accompanied by a pair of goblin creature henchmen, but when he emerges from a pool of low, hovering smoke and sweeps it away, he’s also deliciously menacing. The Dance of the Little Swans – the bit with the four dancers with crossed arms that everyone knows – is both beautiful and rather comical. After all, cygnets are not the most graceful of creatures. The Hungarian, Polish and Neapolitan dances in Act Three are joyously folksy with stunning costumes that hint at traditional dress. Under a ceiling adorned with twinkling lights this international dance-off, like much of this ballet, is a series of set pieces, but Deane gives it a convincing party vibe. Most of all though, there’s no messing with tradition in the swan scenes. In dazzling white tutus and feathered headbands, glowing in the half-light, more than 24 dancers (you lose count) fill the stage in perfect synchronicity. Not only is it a delight to see this many performers on a stage, it’s a rare thing to see movement with such precision and grace. These scenes are truly captivating.

As you might expect, the whole company are at the top of their game, but ballet must always have it’s solo standout moments and these are provided here by leads Fernanda Oliveira as Odette/Odile and Ken Saruhashi as Prince Siegfried whose performances are flawless throughout this long, tough ballet. At one point Oliveira’s short solo as Odile, with pirouettes that seem like they’ll never stop, draws gasps from the audience.

Something needs to be said, though, about the audience. A full house made for a noisy and restless crowd, who, although appreciative, were not that attentive. Post-lockdown it’s as though people need extra reminders to put their phones away, and that even whispered conversations can be heard across an auditorium. At the beginning of Act Two, after a brief scene-change pause, the orchestra was completely drowned out by loud talking until the curtain went up, and it took time for calm to return after two quite long intervals.

There’s something to be said for the traditional, a comfort in familiarity. This production proves that a classic done well will remain a classic, and it will probably stay in ENB’s repertoire for a long time. But if you can see it now, in Manchester or London, do.

Runs until 8 Oct 2022

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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