Artistic Director: Christopher Hampson
Choreography: David Dawson
Music Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conductor: Richard Honner, conducting the Scottish Ballet Orchestra
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
In a 2014 Guardianarticle- “Ditch Swan Lake? The classic ballets that don’t belong in the repertory “ – Scottish Ballet’s Artistic Director Christopher Hampson was quoted as saying: “Large classical ballet companies have a challenge finding the balance between scheduling innovative new commissions while having to consistently display the family silver. I’d like to semi-retire the classical version of Swan Lake…” So it is refreshing that in 2016 his company are premièring a completely new interpretation of the iconic Swan Lake. If you consider how theatre and opera constantly refresh and innovate the classics, it is slightly strange that this most-performed and popular ballet is generally presented in a version based on its 1890s origins.
Set this task is British-born David Dawson, who spent most of his award-winning dancing career in the UK but ended it in Europe, where he has spent most of his award-winning choreographic career, principally with Dutch National Ballet, the Dresden Semperoper Ballet and the Royal Ballet of Flanders, although his numerous creations have achieved international reach.
Dawson’s choreographic style is very much rooted in the physical language of classical ballet, infused with a more modern narrative and expressive emotional style.
This promises to be a stripped-back version, so what remains. The Tchaikovsky score survives mostly intact: here played with great style and intelligence by the Scottish Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Richard Honner, who successfully bring all the glorious colour and complexity of the music to vibrant life. In turns, playful, ceremonial, haunting and achingly beautiful: present, discreet and overwhelming in all the right places.
The soft grey geometry of John Otto’s set design is minimal but suggestive – a hint of columns and staircases, the moonlit lake an impression of moonlight under a post-expressionist forest. It looks like opera. Place and period is removed to be replaced by a timeless modernity in a Zaha Hadid palace. This grey palate is punctuated by the simplicity and vibrancy of Yumiko Takeshima’s costume designs. Swans are stripped back to simply-embellished white – no feathers; the women in elegant jewel and warm earth colours, the men in trousers, jackets and tees in greys, whites and blues, and Odile – the black swan – and her consorts are in deepest black. The colour imagery is clean and clear.
Dawson has stripped out the ‘dated’ period elements of the story. Gone is the palace: there is no queen and her court chiding their heir for mourning his father too long and reminding him of the need to find a bride. The supernatural elements are also gone: there is no evil Von Rothbart, who enchanted the swans and sends his daughter to the palace to betray Siegfried with dark trickery. What remains is a young man troubled by existential angst and a sense of outsiderness, who cannot emotionally join the activities of his friend Benno and their friends, who runs off alone to find himself by a lake where he encounters a mysterious spirit-like creature, part-swan part-human and falls in love, only to mistakenly betray that love with devastating consequences. And that is enough.
Dawson’s choreography is faithful to the structure of the score. His style is indeed very classical but eschews the formality and formulaic elements of the traditional genre. Instead of frozen showcases of dazzling skill, the divertissements become lively and characterful elements of the narrative setting.
Dancers – swans included – are no longer required to maintain forced poses and rigid formation, their choreography reimagined into overlaid loops of shared and individual movement, which gives the whole piece a fresh and modern feel, full of character and individuals as opposed to a sequence of fixed images. Dawson also gives the male members of the company plenty to do, freeing them from the classical role of mostly making the ballerinas look good. Benno’s role as Siegfried’s principal friend – playfully played by Andrew Peasgood – is more substantial than usual.
Dawson has done a fine job of stripping out extraneous details and formality and replacing it with a narrative physicality that conveys character and narrative with pleasing clarity.
Christopher Harrison delivers a highly effective performance. His Siegfried is affable but self-contained, uncertain but evolving. His solo work clearly displays the emotional world in which he is struggling to be heard. Sophie Martin as Odette/Odile is a revelation. As Odette she is ethereal yet commanding, her arched back and swan arms communicating beauty and strangeness. As Odile she is liquid and seductive, like hot dark coffee. With melting communicative arms she seems to dissolve into her partners as they lift and spin her. She is compelling and flutters between distance and eternal presence.
The final section as she makes her farewells to Siegfried following his irreconcilable betrayal and prepares to remove herself and her swans from the world of the now is devastating: she is buoyed heartbreakingly on the rising surge of the music before rushing off as the forest closes in. That Siegfried is left with what appears to be a moment of revelatory self-acceptance and residual joy, rather than gloom at the hands of supernatural forces, seems fitting.
This version of Swan Lake does not confine the traditional tellings to the dusty shelves of history, but it is a delightful reimagining. The clean, vibrant design, the removal of superfluous detail and Dawson’s clean storytelling and fresh ballet style does make this a wonderfully satisfying evening. Tchaikovsky’s score is undiminished and this Swan Lake refreshes its power to dazzle, impress and finally devastate.
The Scottish Ballet – who it often seems rarely tour outside of Scotland – are very welcome visitors based on the quality of this display. Dawson has also been commissioned by the English National Ballet in the recent past. It is to be hoped that British audiences get to see more of his work, and more European ballet.
Runs until 4 June 2016 | Image: Andy Ross