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Royal Ballet of Flanders in Swan Lake

Posted on January 24, 2009


For all its popularity Swan Lake remains one of the most challenging of the great classics – to stage as well as to perform. One only has to remember the crackpot version created by Jan Fabre for the Royal Ballet of Flanders in 2002 to realise how treacherous the pond can be. It’s all the more heartening, therefore, that seven years later, Kathryn Bennetts, artistic director of the Flanders company, has commissioned a brand new Swan Lake. Premiered on January 24, the new production can be saluted as a magnificent achievement on two counts – as a staging and as a performance.

Capitalising on the success of The Sleeping Beauty premiered three seasons ago, Bennetts invited Marcia Haydée (currently artistic director of the Ballet de Santiago in Chile) back to revive Swan Lake, and it has once again proven to be a sound choice. Like Beauty, the key characteristics of her new staging are theatrical vitality and complete faith in dance. Even if Haydée adds some personal accents, there are no disruptive attempts to update the subject or to reinterpret the story. This is Swan Lake purely and simply taken for what it is: a timeless lyric tragedy expressed in dance.

That Haydée’s Swan Lake was tailor-made on the company is an important plus. The Royal Ballet of Flanders is some 50 dancers strong, but at no point did this feel like a scaled down version of a great classic. The production boasts ample dramatic sweep and, thanks to superb designs by Chilean Pablo Nuñez, possesses a fair amount of theatrical power and poetry. Haydée, moreover, knows what this company can do and clearly owns the secret of bringing the best out of them. As with Beauty, the experience and savoir-faire she brings with her has proven an essential asset for the dancers, who appeared quite galvanised. The ensemble, led by the remarkable trio of principals Aki Saito, Wim Vanlessen and Alain Honorez, were in excellent form on opening night, dancing with verve and confidence, their every action a declaration of how delighted they were to be on stage.

Haydée has choreographed the ballet anew except for the sacred Act II lakeside – which varies only in details from the standard Ivanov version – and the bulk of the “Black Swan” pas de deux. The great ensemble sections such as the Act I Waltz and the dance of the swans in Act IV are imaginatively handled, while new solos for the prince in Act I and for Odile in the ballroom fit seamlessly into the bigger picture. The four stylish national dances of the fiancées (performed in heeled shoes) and their respective retinues in Act III, expertly choreographed by Tom Bosma, add to the overall credibility of the production.

Haydée has preserved the traditional dramatic structure but condensed the original four acts into two parts performed with just one interval. The story is briskly told, focusing on the three central characters of the Swan Queen, Prince Siegfried and Rothbart, and whilst most of the traditional mime has been dropped, formal clarity prevails and the key moments make plenty of dramatic impact.

At the opening night performance, Aki Saito’s dancing as Odette/Odile was true and exquisite – she has been the company’s little jewel for quite a few years now. Her technique is secure but never overemphatic, her control admirable, her line pure. Above all she shows perfect comprehension of the ballet. She made a touching Odette and a sparkling, deceitful Odile. Her Siegfried was performed no less admirably by Wim Vanlessen, always sincere in character and distinguished in dance. Working together since their student days, Saito and Vanlessen have developed a strong rapport over the years, which gives their pas de deux extra resonance.

In this version Rothbart is a powerful dancing role, albeit in a non-classical style. Right from curtain rise we understand that Swan Lake is the result of Rothbart’s evil schemes. His sinister presence is intriguing and his appealing manipulation of the drama continues throughout the ballet until he is destroyed – he is actually pecked to death by the swans. Perhaps surprisingly, Haydée opted for a happy ending, which sees Odette and her prince freed from Rothbart’s spell. Tailor-made on Alain Honorez, who dynamically performed the role with a superb sense of theatricality, Rothbart becomes another of his inimitable creations.

Tchaikovsky’s music was prepared by Albena Dobreva, who has removed later additions to the score such as Riccardo Drigo’s arrangements, and Benjamin Pope obtained fine results from the Brussels Philharmonic-The Flemish Radio Orchestra. In broad lines, the traditional musical sequence remains intact, but Haydée does use the score quite liberally. For example, in place of the Act I pas de trois, she has created a series of dances for the villagers arranged to music from the pas de trois and the Act III pas de six. Her choice is nearly always effective, except perhaps when she has merrymaking villagers dancing to the music of the polacca, or when Odile enters to an unspectacular piece of music. I did think it a shame, however, that she did not follow the music more traditionally in Act II’s crucial dramatic denouement when Odette turns back into a swan, which is rather confusingly staged.

The designs by Pablo Nuñez are one of the high points of the production. The breathtakingly evocative backdrops draw you into the story and adds that essential “something” which many contemporary stage designers overlook: the true magic of theatre. The abrupt transformation from green forest to a wintery cold lakeside between Acts I and II is just one of the many splendid moments Nuñez has in store for us. The handsome costumes, enlivened by tasteful colour schemes, sets the story in the 19th century. Nuñez’ designs are a continuous feast for the eye, but the fact that they never drown the choreography or obscure the drama speaks of true artistic vision.

The value of this new Swan Lake cannot possibly be overestimated. A full-length classic of this scope doesn’t take any prisoners and represents a regular health-check for a company. That the Royal Ballet of Flanders looks so good in it can only enhance its credibility, not only in Belgium as its only academically schooled company, but also internationally. The company must now feel confident enough to tour this Swan Lake and rebut the persistent image abroad of a “troupe that can only do modern”. But for the time being, I can’t think of a more convincing way to demonstrate that classical ballet is indeed alive in Belgium.


Aki Saito as Odette and Wim Vanlessen as Siegfried in the Royal Ballet of Flanders new production of Swan Lake. Photograph by Johan Persson.

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