Bringing ballet to larger audiences and reaching out to people who are either unfamiliar or have pre-conceived ideas about the art form has been the holy grail of more than one ballet company. There have been many approaches to tackling the issue, one of the most popular being ballet at the cinema, with the Bolshoi Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, the Paris Opera and the Royal Ballet all eager adopters. In the UK, the BP Big Screens are also bringing live ballet and opera to picnic audiences at parks and squares, targeting people who think going to a performance is expensive, the logistics complicated or the theatre itself too fancy. Another approach is the big arena, where the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet have staged shows (both at The O2) to interesting (if mixed) results. Last but not least, English National Ballet (ENB) has also perfected its own formula, putting on an annual two-week residency at the proscenium-less, in-the-round, stage of the Royal Albert Hall.
This year, ENB offered audiences at the RAH another chance to catch Derek Deane’s Swan Lake. The blockbuster of all ballet blockbusters (apart from The Nutcracker perhaps), Swan Lake is possibly the first piece to come to mind when hearing the word “ballet”. The image of ballerinas in pristine white tutus and feathered headpieces is quite powerful and ENB/Deane’s “in-the-round” production uses this concept as its unique selling point: a corps of 60 dancers moving in perfect unison, generating swirling patterns to Tchaikovsky’s orchestral masterpiece, international guest stars and affordable prices all add up to a good evening at the box office, while allowing a sizeable audience to get a first experience of ballet.
For those who have seen many different productions of Swan Lake, this staging’s adaptations to even out the sightlines (so that everyone in the audience gets a front view) may sometimes prove distracting. For instance, there are full choreographic passages common to all productions that are multiplied by two or four here (think two groups of four cygnets, the Act I Pas de Trois as a Pas de Douze) and some of the dancing has its direction changed mid-section. In the group scenes this is very effective – few things are as thrilling to watch as a well-rehearsed corps de ballet of 60 – but for the Odette/Odile/Siegfried duets, this means you are continuously presented with weird angles. Moreover, it becomes harder to convey certain moods suggested by the score, the intimacy of Siegfried’s and Odette’s encounters completely lost and the central couple hard to focus on, since they are often surrounded by swans.
These points aside, ENB’s Artistic Director Tamara Rojo and guest star Matthew Golding are established dancers who have no issues in commanding the attention of a 1000+ audience. They delivered five-star performances, with their Black Swan Pas de Deux being particularly highbrow and filled with balletic fireworks – killer fouettés for her, while he ate the stage with impressive big jumps. While it has been noted that Golding could have upped the drama a notch or two, let’s face it: prince Siegfried is not a particularly deep character and, even more so, the Siegfried from an arena production. Which is why I hope that audiences attending ENB’s Swan Lake will be drawn to try ballet performances in their natural home. Shows like Swan Lake in the Round are great for bringing people in, but it is the “showy” aspect of the affair that prevents the audience from being transported to a different, magical place – that essential ingredient that always leaves us wanting more.
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