Swan Lake in the Round.

Royal Albert Hall
Julia Pascal.



This is the most famous of classical ballets.  It was conceived for the proscenium arch theatre architecture of the Imperial Russian opera house when it opened with Marius Petipa’s choreography to Peter Tchaikovsky’s composition at Moscow’s Bolshoi in 1895.  The story is simple but there are interesting psychological undertones.  Love, sex, homosexuality, the supernatural, metamorphosis, art, power, fate.

Siegfried, an imperial prince, is obliged by his mother to choose a wife.  He would rather be hunting with his male friends.  To buy himself time, goes off with his crossbow to hunt and goes to a lake which is full of white swans.  Siegfried aims at the queen who turns out to be an imprisoned maiden transformed into a swan by the wicked magician von Rothbart.

Woman as bird is common to several mythologies and the ballet is supposed to be inspired by German or Russian myth.  The concept of a maiden transformed into a swan, or bird, has currency even in our times.  In the 1960s men referred to young women as ‘chicks’.  But let’s get back to the story.

The Swan Queen, Odette, can only be released as a human, if a prince declares eternal love and marries her.  Siegfried promises to do this and returns to court.  On his marriage day the Queen Mother parades potential wives but Siegfried resists telling the court ‘I have a fiancée coming’.  A fanfare announces the arrival of the betrothed.  Siegfried expects Odette.  A Black Swan arrives with her father.  This is von Rothbart’s daughter Odile, who pretends to be Odile.  She mimics Odette’s swan-like movements.  Smitten, Siegfried declares marriage.  At this moment, the skies blacken and Odette is seen desperately in the distance trying to show that she has been tricked.  Siegfried realises his mistake, He returns to the lake to beg Odette’s forgiveness.  However, it is too late.  He has betrayed his word and the betrayed Odette must die.

Historically, the betrayed Odette commits suicide by jumping off a cliff.  When the ballet was performed during Stalin’s dictatorship, the end was rewritten to be a happy one.   Siegfried and Odette flew off to paradise together in a moment of kitsch.  Stalin’s rule dictated that audiences were not to be made uneasy by disturbing art.  Derek Deane’s production repeats the soapy finale which ends bathetically as the leads are reduced to hugs and kisses before the final lift.

The question is why perform Swan Lake today?  Certainly it is a crowd-pleaser and a cash-cow.  It offends nobody.  It has simple binary Black and White Christian morals as a hinterland to supernatural mythology.  The White Swan is a symbol of virginity.  The Black Swan is the vamp who tricks the noble prince and causes him to reject purity.  It is the stuff of Hollywood.  Odette/Odile is the most coveted of the balletic canon for ballerinas.  It offers the opportunity of portraying opposing visions of femininity.  But could a 2024 interpretation go deeper into the personalities of the leads?  Does this need a radical rethink, such as Matthew Bourne’s 1995 gay version, or could there be subtle ways of allowing psychological insights into the work without destroying its appeal?  Do ballet companies need dramaturges to inspire a new vision?

The English National Ballet has had huge success with the in-the-round-version so why would it wish to alter anything?  On the positive side there is certainly a satisfying symbiosis between the music and the dance.  In the proscenium version of the ballet, the orchestra is buried in the pit.  Here the  brilliant English National Ballet Philharmonic is raised and visible.  Dancers and musicians are fused in a most pleasing way.  And the proximity of the dancers to those sitting in the stalls offers intimacy.  Performers’ faces are clearly seen.

However, clumsy residues from proscenium arch staging remain.  For example, when Odette arrives to try to distract Siegfried from Odile’s seduction.  In the traditional version she is at an upstage window.  Deane has this staging in the round which means it is hardly noticed.  Did nobody think how striking it might be to have her run through the ballroom only to be ignored by her prince.  This way the psychological reading of a man being blinded by passion could have added a rich dramaturgical layer.

The in-the- round, skating- rink style staging raises another question.  Acting.  Opera directors, particularly at English National Opera, have realised the importance of training singers to fully realise their roles.  Ballet still focuses on a generalised acting style with a mainly blank face.  Ballet directors and choreographers seem not to realise that storytelling requires total body engagement.  A dancer must perform not only with arms, back, legs and feet but with the gut, the heart and the brain.

Does this in-the-round Swan Lake work? Mostly, yes.  But it has major flaws.  Von Rothbart is a pantomime villain as he flaps around waving metres of fabric.  He is almost always strobe- lit.  Strobe can provoke migraine and epileptic attacks.  Why would anyone want to be subject to blinding, flashing lights during a ballet? I had to cover my eyes as did many around me.

Swan Lake 2024 does invite some new choreographic choices but Derek Deane runs out of ideas when the distraught Siegfried and Odette are reduced to hugs and kisses.  Where was the dance?  As for the performances, Emma Hawes as Odette/Odile and Aitor Arrieta as Prince Siegfried, had thrilling moments but both suffered blips in Act Three.  It is perhaps the leads who suffer the most in the circular staging as there is no framing to support them.  Ultimately, this production allows the spotlight to shine brightest on the corps de ballet while underserving its lead roles.

Julia Pascal © 2024.