Review: Swan Lake live at The Connaught Theatre, Worthing

Swan Lake - Minsk State Academy of Belarus
Swan Lake - Minsk State Academy of Belarus

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

‘Swan Lake’ live at The Connaught Theatre on Saturday 23 November 2019 (7.30pm). The State Academic Theatre of Belarus, Minsk, to Tchaikovsky’s score.

Odette/Odile, Elena Germanovic; Prince Siegfried, Alexander Misiuk; Baron von Rothbart, Ivan Zacharau; Jester, Nikita Polukchi; Pas de Trois, Svetlana Martinkevich-Solovstsova, Irina Voitekunas with Siegfried; Little Swans, Sofia Krivushkina, Mayko Ono, Ksenia Meleshko, Anna Donskaia. Hungarian, Neapoloitan and Spanish dances by other soloists.

Live classical ballet returned momentously to Worthing Theatres with a month-ahead sell-out of 520 fans to taste this cultural offering from an organisation calling itself Russian National Ballet.

Dutch National Ballet proved the last on-stage professional classical ballet seen in Worthing, before six uninterrupted seasons of on-screen live streaming of Royal Ballet productions from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It was deemed screen and stage should not be mixed.

On Saturday, those with residual hunger for in-the-flesh ballet sat alongside curious new audience created by the RB live streams presented by ‘Strictly’ celebrity judge and former RB prima ballerina Darcey Bussell. I needed only to ask the young middle-aged couple beside me to confirm this.

The male star names of Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Mukhamedov resound down the decades, now also Natalya Osipova, so British audiences embrace Russians dancers bearing superlative gifts. Since all three moved West, and the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theatres sent productions their wake, a public-perceived charisma precedes any Russian classical ballet troupe’s UK visit.

The Russian Federation sends 19 working ballet companies out across the globe. Few are world-beaters. The quality ranges from good to indifferent. On tour here they face comparison with a deepening domestic breadth of British who can outshine them.

For all their deeply ingrained Russian ballet tradition they had been under British scrutiny long before the live-streaming of RB’s own world-leading artistic and production values – which will make highly interesting to discover what Worthing audience take away from Saturday’s show.

It was The State Academic Theatre of Belarus who arrived on tour from Minsk for the penultimate performance of their 54 dates in 60 days. With principal roles alternating between dancers, their workload has been four Giselles, 30 Nutcrackers and 20 Swan Lakes – this, the sixth consecutive and final one. On Sunday, they dragged themselves to Fareham Hall for a final Nutcracker, still hiding the inevitable accumulations of fatigue, injuries and homesickness.

Odette/Odile principal, Elena Germanovich, was on her third visit to UK, having begun ballet comparatively late at age 10 after concentrating on figure skating and gymnastics. In my counting, she managed 30 of the 32 fouettes in Act 3. The corps was reduced to 12 for the small stage (lake) but bravo to Worthing Theatres for placing live ballet at the same venue as the RB live streams. The Connaught outguns The Pavilion Theatre in atmosphere with superior wide audience sightlines.

We learn to take minuses and pluses from these Russian visits. They don’t usually hold all the aces. Bit we always wonder how their Swan Lakes will end. We usually go away enlightened but also valuing our own companies more, and some other visiting ones, too. Saturday was no different.

Russian costume quality is usually high. These Minskians were orthodox but fine: wine, cream, silver and gold the themes of the Court with plenty of sumptuous plumed male hats, and with short satin capes for Act 3. Blue replaced wine for the Pas de Trois girls. The jester was halved in grey and red, the visiting Neapolitans were in refreshing green and grey, the Hungarians in maroon and beige with a light blue skirt, and no one seems ever to deviate from black and red for the Spaniards. Prince Siegfried was white for every day, black for his 21st Birthday Ball.

And the virtuosic spectacularly evil Baron von Rothbart? Raven black, with wing feathers the colour of dried blood. In gate-crashing the Ball, his black full-length cloak was lined in faux regal red.

What did the Minskians lack? Not uncommonly in these companies, emotion. The chief mitigating factor would have been the fast tempo of the recorded music. Little tension or feeling had the space to accumulate. Act 2 was too loud, reverberant and consequently showy. So add the speed and that made un-conveyable the shyness of Odette and tremulousness of Siegfried in their stressful first meeting. Forget nuance. The music insisted they got on with it. Act 4 was not loud enough and so the dynamic intensity and enormity of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic finale had lightweight impact.

There was virtually no mime, so no dramatic tension developed between the Queen and her son about picking a bride on her schedule, and little between he and Odette on their stressful first meeting. There was no buddy Benno for Siegfried, so he suffered alone. It was a streamlined Swan Lake, almost as though tuned to an anachronistic British stiff upper lip – and all over in 2 hours flat.

What did the Minskians bring? A decision to remove their attractive innovation of a Prologue in which Rothbart first captures and ensnares the flower-picking Odette at lakeside. Presumably to Tchaikovsky’s own deeply ominous Prologue, the absence of which now created instead an instantly up-beat start, straight into the court making merry in the castle garden with the irrepressible Jester’s dancing firework display. A comedy could have just begun.

The downside of this? As Act 2 ends with Rothbart in the ascendancy, Tchaikovsky’s Prelude doom theme lacked the power of being heard a second time with its full significance driven home, so further degrees of tension were lost.

I liked the musicality of these four Little Swans. I liked the Spanish boy and girl bursting from behind the screen of Rothbart’s imperiously spread cloak. I missed the goblets in the Goblets Dance. Had the Minskians banned alcohol in the company? Instead, with twilight advancing on the garden party, the boys held torches.

I admired the daring about something I’ve never seen done. As Siegfried and Odile eye each other about three yards apart, he now convinced she is really Odette, the lighting blacks out and, spotlit between them, Odette herself fleetingly flails before Siegfried. The light restored, Odette vanished, this early warning of a dastardly deed was being kind to a dimwit prince. In vain. He heeds only Odette’s traditional appearance moments later, when his die is already cast.

So is all lost? Or does he win her back, down at the lake in Act 4? I’m not saying. If you weren’t there, then the finish is the most telling part of Swan Lake. It has different endings in different interpretations. Be enriched. Go and discover them for yourself.

All I’ll say is its point was a universal one. So: ‘Thanks, Minskers, for the reminder.”

Richard Amey

Next professional classical ballet on stage in Worthing: we will see.

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