English National Ballet
Royal Albert Hall
9th June 2010
English National Ballet’s in-the-round presentation of the classic Swan Lake story has been made for the vastness of the Hall’s stage. It’s an unforgiving and exposing place – you need to be really on your game to do well here. Vadim Muntagirov, our Prince for the night, is 20 and only a year out of school. In that time he has skipped 8 years in the corp de ballet (Carlos Acosta did the same and was in the audience) and has been given five principal roles. This was his debut as Prince Siegfried.
This production was developed to attract newcomers to ballet. Judging by the audience it probably has – the ushers were endlessly running around, repeatedly asking people to stop taking photographs and using flash – something that wouldn’t usually be necessary. Why is it an issue ? Flash is dangerous for dancers. Imagine if you were spotting a turn (which means picking a spot in the distance and using it as a marker of where you are, as you quickly whip your head around whilst turning) and a flash bulb went off, obliterating your spot – it could result in one of the dancers being injured. Even professional photographers don’t use flash with dancers in rehearsal or performance.
That said, the theatrical spectacle is undeniable. I could do without the jugglers and acrobats, probably even the children too, although it is good that they have stage experience in this way. It’s enough that you have eight Cygnets instead of four, four Lead Swans instead of two and a Pas de Douze instead of a Pas de Trois. The sets are minimal, and with no wings the cast have the tricky job of making some entrances and exits via the auditorium, made all the more hazardous when the dry ice is in full flow and the steps are hard to see, especially when exiting at speed as Muntagirov often had to. In particular, the trees at the moonlit lakeside are ravishingly atmospheric, with lighting by Howard Harrison.
Thinking about the audience is always a winner, and all of the steps have been thought out, to look good from every angle so that wherever you are sitting, you will get some great views (and inevitably some less great ones). However, this is at the expense of some of the mime ; this story is told through bold groupings and dazzling (literally) lighting. If you are susceptible to flashing lights, be warned.
Daria Klimentová was given the First Night honours as Guest dancer Polina Semionova had Visa problems and was unable to travel. I’ve said before that Klimentová is nobody’s substitute. Tiny, yet made of solid steel, she pulls Muntagirov into the story and that’s just what he needs at this stage in his career. In rehearsals they laugh together all the time – here the tension crackles in the air as the drama of the story unfolds.
Muntagirov has the manner of a Prince, with precise, clean lines and pointed feet. His strong, highly arched feet power him through arabesque and beyond. He has the ability to hang in the air, leaving behind a beautiful arabesque line. It’s tough on the Prince that he has to spend time on stage walking or sitting, unable to warm up before his first adagio solo. It’s harder still to control your breath sufficiently to see you through those controlled steps when you are nervous.
I could have cried when I saw him softly drop to his knees and bow his head in front of Klimentová, as he acknowledged his betrayal of her Odette; every sinew in him felt that emotion and I felt it too – and I’ve seen him do it a few times. His first solo is the same, full of longing, despair and insecurity.
There is something about Muntagirov’s speed in the air that reminds me of a conversation I had with one of the Concorde pilots. He told me that flying at mach 2, twice the speed of sound, we were moving faster than a bullet from a gun. You can’t see a bullet, but you can see Concorde because it’s bigger. Same with Muntagirov.
I would like him to relax a little more; be a bit softer. Through his schooling he has the considerable advantage of having mastered the Russian and English styles, but it’s his Russian training, with its precise placing and a slightly formal stiffness, which is uppermost when he is nervous. I could see it in his ankles, and the way he moved his feet when standing. Once or twice I saw a clenched fist with his left hand; something I can’t imagine in a Prince. The stiffness will go, and right now it’s endearing to see him working things through.
This is the only Swan Lake where you will see a flock of 60 swans on stage together. And it’s some sight. A point about the noise – it’s not that the dancers haven’t taken care with their pointe shoes – they have – it’s the floor, and there is nothing that can be done about it. The swans also have a lot of ground to cover and at times they fairly race on, and yes, you can hear them. But don’t let this put you off ballet. Appreciate instead the skill of standing in perfectly straight drills, on pointe, of always having your head directly behind the girl in front, and of the particular challenges of the lead swan in each row, who has to hit the right spot every time. All of the swans must use their elbows and have very soft arms, whilst at the same time their feet must be pin sharp. If you can picture gently wafting anemones wearing a tutu, multiplied a million times, that is your beautiful picture framed.
ENB’s company dancers have been augment
ed with 38 extra dancers for this production, who have been brought up to company standard in just three weeks by the excellent artistic staff, including Rosalyn Whitten, Jane Haworth (also performing as The Queen), Maina Gielgud and Stephen Beagley. Derek Deane has given the swans some of the best choreography – and some of the hardest. Time and again they drop to their knees right on the music, lowering to the floor with hands on their feet and never on the floor.
There were other cast changes too. Due to injury, Yat-Sen Chang was unable to perform, giving James Forbat a phenomenal debut in the Neapolitan dance alongside Senri Kou. It’s furiously fast and was taken at a real lick by the conductor Gavin Sutherland. Both dancers gave their all, Forbat really pulling every last inch from his jumps.
I want to mention Esteban Berlanga, whose beautifully shaped feet were wasted in green boots. He spent much of the evening sat on a stool, and yet on Saturday he will dance the Principal role with Begoña Cao. Both have exquisite, perfectly matched lines, and I’d urge you to see them.
I didn’t see anyone jump higher, or land more silently, than Muntagirov. By Act 111 Klimentová and Muntagirov show you why they opened the show. Klimentová flashes her eyes, busy with deceit, while Muntagirov falls helplessly under her spell. All of the tricks are there – the 32 fouetté rond de jambe en tournant from Klimentová and some stunning turns from Muntagirov, displaying his long limbs to perfection. On the ground he is tall and strong; in the air he seems to float and looks as light as a feather. Rothbart, half-man, half-bird, danced very well by Tamás Solymosi, really came into his own in the last two acts, finally meeting his watery end in Act 1V.
The ending falls flat after the tempestuous demise of Rothbart, and its ambiguity doesn’t sit well – is it a happy ending or just a pause in the story ? It’s not emphatic enough. Left alone on the stage, Odette and Prince Siegfried turn slowly, wrapped up with each other. I can’t understand why Rothbart gets a call-back and yet the backbone of the tale – the swans – scatter from the stage never to be seen again. They deserve an encore.
Esteban Berlanga and Begoña Cao will dance the principal roles for one performance only, on Saturday 12 June at 2.30pm
Swan Lake is in rep at the Royal Albert Hall until June 19th
Box Office : 0845 401 5045