SWAN LAKE Play Review

Jiten S. Merchant

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Some classics are so representative of their genre that it is impossible to think of either without recalling the other. In this, SWAN LAKE is the quintessential ballet in the Russian classical tradition. The image that it conjures, of ballerinas in white tutus representing maidens turned into swans, has remained steadfast in our consciousness for over a century.

It is one of three fairy-tale ballets by Peter Tchaikovsky, whose music is lyrical and impassioned, poignant and thrilling, symphonic in its scope. The haunting "swan theme" is surely one of the most easily recognisable pieces of music ever written, ubiquitous in its popularity.

The original version of the ballet is rarely performed. Most productions are based on the 1895 revival by the Kirov Ballet, supervised by Tchaikovsky's brother after the composer's death; and choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with additional music by the conductor Riccardo Drigo. This revival also made changes in the story of the ballet.

The scenario currently performed is this: Prince Siegfried, while hunting in the forest, comes across a lake with a group of swans who turn into beautiful women, headed by their 'swan queen' Odette, with whom he falls in love. She and her maidens have been cursed by the magician Von Rothbart -- a spell which can only be broken through true love. The prince promises to make Odette his own, if she will come to his palace the next day for a celebration during which he will announce his choice of bride. But the magician makes an appearance at the party with his daughter Odile, who has been made to look exactly like Odette. She captivates the Prince, who swears his love to her. At that time, Odette is seen fluttering at the window. The Prince, realising his error, rushes to the lake, into which she jumps, killing herself. After a battle with Rothbart, the Prince follows her, the spell is broken, the magician dies and the swans become human; the Prince and Odette are seen united in the hereafter.

In keeping with Soviet ideology, a new version was created for the Kirov Ballet by Konstantin Sergeyev in 1950, based on the 1895 revival but with a happy ending, in which Siegfried fights Rothbart and tears off his wing, killing him. Odette is restored to human form; she and Siegfried are happily united.

This production by the Royal Russian Ballet follows the Sergeyev version, with a few alterations. There are a couple of surprising additions, such as an extra variation for Odile; and the inclusion of the seldom performed Russian Dance among the other "national dances" which make up the divertissement (show-pieces unrelated to the story) in the palace scene. There are some minor cuts; but the beautiful and melancholic Dance of the Swans at the beginning of the final act has also been removed and this is a real loss, like some of the more daring, difficult dance-movements (unforgettable to anyone who knows this ballet), and which have been omitted or simplified.

Not surprisingly, considering this is essentially a touring company, the number of dancers has been downsized. Many of the set-pieces have fewer dancers than usual; and sometimes the stage looks too sparsely populated, for example, in the scene at the palace. Even so, the dancing on the whole is more than competent. The corps de ballet seems to be made up of young, well-trained dancers with sound, disciplined technique. Thus, the famous dance of the four cygnets in Act II was executed with razor-sharp precision and in perfect unison; the Neapolitan Dance was delivered with pizzazz by Arina Chumak and Alexei Bogutskiy; Yurii Gregul stood out for his unbridled energy in the Spanish Dance; and the Russian Dance was performed solo by Natalia Kazatskaia with great charm and delicacy.

Denis Tarasov as the Jester was agile and graceful, though he missed some of the character's impishness. The rest of the principals have been double-cast, each set dancing on different days. Anatolii Khandazhevskyi did what was required as the Prince, with decent if not spectacular execution of scissor-leaps and other balletic demands, while Artem Tymchuk as Rothbart was quite unremarkable in the earlier parts of his role but came into his own during the final act, becoming a creature of real power and menace.

Any performance of "Swan Lake" depends ultimately on the prima ballerina who has to portray both Odette and Odile. It is a well-known fact that it is extremely difficult for any dancer to do equal justice to both, as they are extremely contrasted. So was Olga Kifyak's level of accomplishment. Her dancing of Odette could best be described as grammatical. There was cold classicism and an aristocratic mien with an expressionless face...but where was the vulnerability, fragility and, ultimately, heartbroken despair? Her Odile, on the other hand, was near-electrifying. The dancer suddenly seemed to come to life, investing this character with the sly sexuality that was needed; and was able to dispatch the role's notoriously demanding choreography, including the famous 32 fouettés (turns) with aplomb.

This production uses a pre-recorded soundtrack, most of which is played by the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre (home of the Kirov Ballet) and conducted by Valery Gergiev. Thus there are inevitable compromises, since a live orchestra isnt present to tailor the music symbiotically with the dancing. Moreover, the sound-levels appear to have been 'normalised' so that softer passages (for example, the violin solo in the pas de deux) seem unnaturally loud. And there is a fatiguing excess of bass...though this could well have been a contribution of the sound-system at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Speaking of which, its stage looked cramped, in spite of the fewer than usual dancers involved.

The set is old-fashioned (which is not necessarily a bad thing!) using painted backdrops to represent the palace gardens, the lake and a hall in the palace. The initial impression is favourable. The wings on either side of the stage are replaced with painted images of pillars while the flies at the top have an ornate ceiling. However, these remain during the scene at the lake, and thus become extremely incongruous. The lighting leaves much to be desired, since is rudimentary and unable to convey much atmosphere; the appearance of Odette at the window lacks the requisite magic. The costumes, though, are quite pretty, authentic and entirely appropriate.

In sum, though one may want to commend Navrasa Duende for their initiative in organising this India tour of SWAN LAKE, one cannot help but wish for more...especially when one considers the astronomical ticket-prices! With more accomplished principal dancers, a full-sized corps, a live orchestra, better sets and lighting, this would have been something special.

Perhaps next time?

*Jiten S Merchant was the English drama critic for the Times of India (Mumbai) from 1989 to 1997, after which he free-lanced for the paper and on the Internet. He has worked in amateur and professional theatre as actor and sound-designer, and has directed and performed in staged play-readings. Currently, he is an accredited reviewer for Seen and Heard International, one of the oldest and most widely-read online purveyors of music-criticism, for whom he covers concerts of Western Classical music and Opera in Mumbai.

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