by Theodora Clarke
Russian classical ballet has become a perennial staple for companies around the world in the run up to Christmas. This year, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, is no exception with no less than two major Tchaikovsky works, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Plus audiences are in for a treat with large-scale productions of The Firebird and Raymonda.
Russian ballet has remained popular in the West for many years. The success of the Ballets Russes in Europe in the twentieth century and the rise of dancers such as Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova increased its mass appeal. It is hard to believe now that when first performed Swan Lake was not an immediate success. The audience struggled to understand the convoluted storyline which mixed Russian and German fairytales. The ballet premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877. However, it was not until 1895 during the coronation celebrations for Tsar Nicholas II, that a version of Swan Lake became a hit. The ROH is currently presenting this revised ballet originally produced by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The present version was originally staged in London in 1987 by the former ROH Artistic Director and Principal Dancer Anthony Dowell.
The opulent set designs and costumes are reminiscent of life in the Imperial Court. The glowing lanterns and shimmering fabrics remind us of the work of Carl Fabergé, particularly the Easter egg shaped golden throne. The narrative essentially revolves around a typical love story, featured in many Russian fairytales, of a prince, evil magician and a swan. The music is still thrilling after hundreds of years and audiences will recognise the well-known motifs that signal the arrival of characters on stage such as Odette and her evil twin. Swan Lake remains a classic because it combines the best of beautiful choreography with a lyrical score.
There are some excellent performances from the ensemble such as the peasant boys in Act I and the Neapolitan duet. However, the corps of swans stole the show who were a vision in white. In Act Two the cygnets were perfectly in time and the well-rehearsed corps de ballets made the fluttering group of swans a pleasure to watch.
The night I went I saw Zenaida Yanowksy as the Swan Queen. There was a clear difference between her performance as the good Odette and evil Odile. There are several ballerinas who alternate the lead role depending so you will see different swans depending on which performance you attend. Her black swan was particularly memorable and her footwork was excellent. The dual role of Odette/Odile is technically very challenging but she rose to the occasion.
There was a live cinema relay last month of Yanowsky’s performance. The ROH Cinema has gone from strength to strength over the last few years with digital technology playing an important role in engaging with new audiences and showing that ballet has mass appeal. In the run up to Christmas there will also be opportunities to see The Nutcracker and Les Troyens.
Swan Lake remains a festive treat for all the family to enjoy.
Swan Lake is in rep at the Royal Opera House until November 24.