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How choreographer Liam Scarlett is reimagining Swan Lake

A fresh look at the great classic, The Royal Ballet's new production is the Company's first in 30 years.

By Jessica Duchen (Journalist/Author)

19 January 2018 at 4.15pm | 47 Comments

Challenges for a ballet company can scarcely be greater than staging a new production of Swan Lake. It’s everyone’s idea of the perfect classical ballet, almost ubiquitously familiar, along with its glorious Tchaikovsky score, and perhaps the bigger the ballet company, the bigger the challenge becomes. Now The Royal Ballet is about to unveil an ambitious new version of the story of Prince Siegfried and Odette, the doomed swan princess, from choreographer Liam Scarlett – its first for 30 years.

‘We want it to feel like a big, opulent Swan Lake that could only be by The Royal Ballet,’ says The Royal Ballet’s director Kevin O’Hare. The corps de ballet of swans will wear tutus, not the longskirted dresses they were previously assigned – another feature that hints at the classic status O’Hare is hoping for. ‘I think everyone deserves a chance to take a fresh look at the great classics,’ he comments. ‘Of course there’s an emotional wrench in saying goodbye to Anthony Dowell’s production, as so many of our dancers have grown up on it or performed in it as children. But it’s important to refresh things every so often. This production has been a long time in the making and we’re very excited about it.’

To lead the process, O’Hare homed in on the inspiring working partnership between Scarlett and highly-esteemed designer John Macfarlane, which has blossomed since their first collaboration on Asphodel Meadows in 2010, culminating (thus far) in 2016’s Frankenstein. ‘I remember John Macfarlane remarking many years ago that he thought he had one more Swan Lake in him,’ O’Hare says. ‘I didn’t forget!’ And Macfarlane, for his part, says he had wanted for a long time to ‘lay the ghost’ of a difficult experience with this ballet a long time ago, but had been waiting for the ideal opportunity – which has finally arrived.

For Scarlett, still only in his early thirties, the production represents his greatest challenge to date. ‘I don’t think anything will surpass the opportunity to do Swan Lake,’ he says. ‘There’s a huge gravity and weight about it just because of its predecessors for the company, so it’s mammoth. And I’m loving it.’

That is thanks, not least, to the music. ‘When it was first done in 1877, the choreographer Julius Reisinger said it was almost undanceable – even suggesting replacing part of Tchaikovsky’s score with a more “conventional” section of Minkus’s – but over a century later, here we are and it’s just perfection in terms of its danceability and its narrative storytelling,’ says Scarlett. ‘From that first note on the oboe you are immediately transported into this beautiful, tragic fairytale.’ Scarlett has created an entire new Act IV, based on the musical running order that was also used by Ashton. He is also choreographing the company dances and divertissements in Acts I and III, including most of the national numbers and the ‘Vals des Fiancées’. Former Director of The Royal Ballet Frederick Ashton’s beloved Neapolitan Dance, though, stays: ‘I danced it so often and love it so much,’ Scarlett says, ‘I don’t think I could or should touch it.’

Over the decades, Swan Lake has enjoyed innumerable retellings and reinterpretations around the world. Matthew Bourne’s powerful psychodrama, with its corps de ballet of male swans, has become one of the most popular of all; and while audiences flocking to the Mariinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake are wowed by the classic Act II, some are perturbed by the happy ending, a Soviet-era interpolation. But in general since Swan Lake’s conception in the late 19th century, the finesse of narrative in ballet, its sophistication and its theatricality, has vastly increased. Scarlett and Macfarlane say they have been paying minute attention to building characters and knitting up incongruities – for instance, the role of Benno, the Prince’s best friend, will be more substantial, and the two dancers with whom he performs the Act I pas de trois are to be Siegfried’s sisters.

‘We started by asking each other: “What has most irritated you about productions of Swan Lake you have seen?”’ Macfarlane laughs. But there’s a serious point here about plausibility, which applies even in fairytales: ‘I’d never understood why in Act III Von Rothbart suddenly turns up to the “baddie” music; he looks terrifying and he is a total stranger, yet the Queen simply greets him and pats the seat next to her. If he is a known person, though, that is good. I have always been desperate, too, that he should be a figure who dances, not just a character figure.’

Scarlett has built up the magician, Von Rothbart, into a true dramatic villain. ‘I’ve amalgamated him into Act I,’ he says. ‘We see him behind the Queen as an adviser and military commander-inchief. He’s a shadowy, oppressive figure for Siegfried, like a physical or metaphorical weight upon his shoulders, from the beginning. Having already taken a palace from Odette and kept her captive, perhaps he now wants to ruin this palace and take it over for himself. He’s a sinister, brooding character who is manipulative and conniving and has a detailed plan. When he knows the Prince must get married, he sees the opportunity to entice him with Odette, then trap him with Odile.’ Siegfried, as the non-magical human with whom the audience can identify, is on stage throughout:

‘We follow him and see his point of view. The most challenging thing is making sense of him in terms of narrative as well as dancing. Siegfried is a real person: as in so many myths and allegories, he is chasing an ethereal, magical creature to fulfil what’s lacking in his mortal life. Once you’ve honed Siegfried, then I think everything else can fall into place.’ Macfarlane’s designs root Siegfried’s life in a small-state monarchy some time in the 1890s. From the species of tree that dominated estate parklands, such as a cedar of Lebanon, to the Queen’s costume – in mourning for the late King – and the vast, oppressive grandeur of the ballroom scene contrasting with the moonlit lake, a wealth of naturalistic detail conspires to build up our impression of Siegfried’s psyche.

As for Odette, she and her black swan nemesis Odile are magical beings: ‘They are two distinct entities, creations of Von Rothbart and controlled by him, especially Odile,’ comments Scarlett, adding, ‘It must be wonderful for the women to take this almost bipolar role, though it’s very difficult.’ O’Hare is lining up six different casts, with Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov leading for the first night; in due course, he says, there will be opportunity for some of the up-and-coming Company dancers to take the principal roles.

And the ending? ‘I’ve decided what it is,’ Scarlett says, ‘but I won’t disclose it just yet! I don’t think Tchaikovsky dictates a happy ending. It’s bittersweet, and it’s tragic. The beauty in the music serves to amplify the tragedy even more.’

Swan Lake runs 17 May-21 June 2018. Tickets go on sale to Friends of Covent Garden on 7 March, with General Booking opening on 4 April.

The production is sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels and is staged with Generous philanthropic support from The Monument Trust, Ricki Gail and Robert Conway, Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Jette Parker, Celia Blakey, Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman, Doug and Ceri King, the Swan Lake Production Syndicate, The American Friends of Covent Garden and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

This article is an edited version of an article first published in the ROH Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden. Find out more about becoming a Friend

By Jessica Duchen (Journalist/Author)

19 January 2018 at 4.15pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Liam Scarlett, kevin o'hare, Liam Scarlett, Odette, Odile, Production, Swan Lake

This article has 47 comments

  1. Chris responded on 19 January 2018 at 1:52pm Reply

    Could you please let us know when casting will be confirmed? And could we have something a little bit more specific than "it will be published as soon as it's available"?

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 19 January 2018 at 2:55pm

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment.
      Casting will be confirmed in time for the opening of booking.

      Best wishes,

      Chris

    • Chris responded on 19 January 2018 at 4:07pm

      in time for Patrons booking end of January?

  2. Peter Koppers responded on 19 January 2018 at 1:53pm Reply

    Aside from its many virtues, the new production disposes of the last act of 1895. Precious choreography by Ivanov will be lost, and that in an age wherein the likes of Alexei Ratmansky stage Russian Imperial Ballet classics as close to the source as possible. Alas, the Royal Ballet is missing an opportunity here, failing to stay true to its heritage.

    • Sebastian Petit responded on 8 February 2018 at 5:11pm

      I don't see how you can know this as the production hasn't been premiered yet

  3. Carlos Visintin responded on 19 January 2018 at 3:51pm Reply

    The Royal ballet used to be more...

  4. Django Mason responded on 19 January 2018 at 4:58pm Reply

    Please tell me that Lauren Cuthbertson will be dancing Odette/Odile for the live cinema relay!

  5. Robert T Masarachi responded on 20 January 2018 at 2:34pm Reply

    All I ask is that you reinstate the music of act IV exactly as Tchaikovsky wrote it; it is a self-contained masterpiece of symphonic narrative. There was some music in your old version which I couldn’t source, but was quite inappropriate and ruined the sequence. You’ve already dealt with the swan skirts so I will remain silent! We desperately need a truly classic version in this country; everyone seems to want to re-interpret this masterpiece; leave it be!

  6. Morton D. Paley responded on 20 January 2018 at 8:20pm Reply

    Natalia Osipova is the greatest Odette/Odile I have ever seen.

    • Marian Westlake responded on 22 January 2018 at 10:50am

      Completely agree. So looking forward to seeing her with Matthew Ball.

    • Sílvia Torres responded on 23 January 2018 at 4:32pm

      Osipova gave one of the most laughable performances of Odette/Odile I've ever seen on the cinema relay. I was ashamed for The Royal Ballet.

  7. Karen responded on 21 January 2018 at 12:59pm Reply

    So long as we lose the frumpy swan outfits and the demented budgie costume for Rothbart I doubt even Scarlett can wreck it. A better re-imagining of Rothbart is greatly overdue. He is generally the weak link in virtually every production I've seen including the Russian ones.

  8. Sílvia Torres responded on 23 January 2018 at 4:29pm Reply

    Extremely pleased to see Marianela on the Cinema Relay of Swan Lake!! So excited!!! Thank you, ROH!

  9. Bill Woolhouse responded on 23 January 2018 at 6:59pm Reply

    Sir Peter Wright should have been given the honour.

  10. Alex responded on 24 January 2018 at 8:24am Reply

    My wife and I are greatly looking forward to attend your last ballet of the Season "Swan Lake". Having seen the glorious Marianella Nunez in this role, as well as Lauren Cuthbertson, we are most looking forward to Yasmine Naghdi's debut as Odette/Odile. Must admit we are disappointed she is not partnered with her "usual" partner Matthew Ball. Both dancers have the astonishing ability to evoke powerful emotions in their audience. No doubt Miss Naghdi will be equally stunning partnered by her fellow Principal Mr. Kish.

  11. Luiz responded on 25 January 2018 at 3:26am Reply

    I had expectations to see a new swan in live cinemas when I heard Royal Ballet was developing a new production to be broadcast. Instantly thought that Naghdi could deliver a great swan. Anyway, miss Nuñez will rock that stage as she always does. I look forward to see her.

  12. Karen Gordon responded on 26 January 2018 at 8:52am Reply

    We have a definitive version in this country; Sir Peter Wright's magnificent production for BRB.

  13. Pelin Monroe responded on 28 January 2018 at 5:21am Reply

    I agree with the above comments that Osipova is my favorite Odette/Odile at the Royal Ballet. Was hoping she would be in the cinema relay but it makes sense to give it to another couple since she was given the opportunity last time. Great to see that she will be partnered with Ball as they are bother quite emotive and theatrical.

  14. Judge responded on 28 January 2018 at 4:00pm Reply

    Very disappointed not to see Francesca Hayward cast as Odile/Odette. Thought she would have been ahead of Yasmine Naghdi, since she was promoted earlier. But I suppose all good things come to those who wait. When is the first revival scheduled??!!

    • EB responded on 28 January 2018 at 9:49pm

      My thoughts exactly!

    • Alex responded on 29 January 2018 at 10:59am

      Roles at The Royal Ballet are not given according to whom is promoted earlier Judge, but to whom the AD and the choreographer feel will be best suited at this point in their career to dance this highly demanding classical full-length ballet

    • Sandra Bishop responded on 8 February 2018 at 4:47pm

      Yes, me too - but when I thought about it she is dancing Manon at the time Swan Lake will be going into rehearsal and these classics are tough. Much as I love her, I did feel when she made her debut as Aurora that she was possibly struggling a bit stamina-wise by the end, so I guess they felt it was best not to cast her in Swan Lake this time when she's doing another big and demanding role. Am still looking forward to seeing it - Liam Scarlett's ideas sound really interesting - and will go to see Yasmine Naghdi as haven't yet seen her in a major role - can't make her performance as Giselle on Saturday due to another commitment.

  15. I think it is most unfair to Ms Osipova that she is is to be partnered by Ball in all her performances of Swan Lake. Democracy in the Arts is a foolish concept.

    • Sebastian Petit responded on 8 February 2018 at 5:10pm

      I don't understand your point - any Swan Lake performance is founded on the security of the central partnership. If Natalia had to continually swap partners to please your whim it would undoubtedly diminish her performance

    • Julie responded on 1 May 2018 at 3:32pm

      Having seen Ball replace Hallberg for Act 2 of Giselle earlier this year, I would say that Osipova/Ball is probably the hottest ticket for Swan Lake now

  16. Katherine responded on 3 February 2018 at 1:28pm Reply

    Will there be a live cinema broadcast? I don't live in London and can't afford a ticket to see it but would love to see it

  17. Valerie Knight responded on 7 February 2018 at 3:22pm Reply

    I would have liked to see Lauren Cuthbertson in the Live relay with Federico Bonelli (Nutcracker 2016!) or with Vadim Muntagirov (Two Pigeons and Diamonds). I don't agree Steven McRae would be a good partner for her. Still, I'll be at the cinema but will be at ROH for a real live performance with my first choice partnership.

  18. Sebastian Petit responded on 8 February 2018 at 5:12pm Reply

    I'm not surprised Ms Torres didn't allow any replies to this ridiculous comment Sílvia Torres responded on 23 January 2018 at 4:32pm
    Osipova gave one of the most laughable performances of Odette/Odile I've ever seen on the cinema relay. I was ashamed for The Royal Ballet.

  19. Suzi responded on 10 February 2018 at 6:54pm Reply

    Yes, almost as though Art is subjective... imagine that!

    I quite liked Osipova as O/O & am very interested to see her with Ball. As anyone who saw them dance together at Hull would surely vouch, they will be interesting together :-) There was also a brief interview with Ball in the January 18 Dance Europe if anyone is interested. Lovely to read.

    Very excited for Naghdi’s debut! Very disappointed Hayward is not dancing this time around. The female principal roster is brimming with such talent it must be getting difficult to distribute roles. But, next time I’m sure Hayward will be dancing (with whom though). Would liked to have seen James Hay as Seigfried. He’s such an elegant dancer.

    I have no comments on the choreography (how could I?) but I’m interested to see what Scarlett has done with it.

  20. Jillian responded on 11 February 2018 at 4:55pm Reply

    As an observer from across the sea, I find British commentary on dancers to be very biased. I’ve no doubt Hayward is a wonderful dancer, but when the critics put in such remarks about her physical appearance as “drop dead gorgeous” (which is very subjective), you lose credibility. Stop bashing on Osipova, and start reviewing other dancers like Takada and Nagdhi. Did you ever think that Hayward was not cast because she was not ready for the technicalities of the black swan?

    • Alex responded on 1 March 2018 at 8:58am

      I fully agree with you Jillian. My wife and I often attend the ballet at POB and occasionally in St Petersburg but mainly watch the RB. We have also noticed that debuts danced by the other young Principals Akane Takada and Yasmine Naghdi are overlooked by the British critics. Several main British newspapers reviewed Hayward's Giselle debut but not Naghdi's debut...; the same goes for other debuts they have shared in the past. Obviously there is a bias and if the critics only review dancers THEY consider wonderful and so-called "drop dead gorgeous" then yes their subjectivity makes them loose credibility. In the end members of the audience are the best critics.

  21. Verena responded on 24 February 2018 at 11:11am Reply

    Wow, Liam Scarlett's Swan Lake sounds...boooring. Is this all the surprise? Rotbart the adviser, Odette the vision, the tragic prince - this reminds me of Nurejev's Lac du cygnes. The additional sisters, what great story improvement. As long I enjoy the dancing, this could be a good deal. It is, of course, a story that works. But honestly, Rotbart the villainous villain, Odette the purest graceful ethereal being, the dreaming, poor prince - this is the Swan Lake I got bored of. Is this Swan Lake? Who knows...It could be Odette's story. What if her sad background story isn't true? What if Rotbart has never destroyed her kingdom and enchanted her? This all Odette only tells Siegfried. Could she lie and enlure the prince? Does she want to marry a Prince Charming? Is this everything only a great masquerade? Perhaps Odette is a fairy swan shape shifter (not evil!). But what if Rotbart is only jealous? A guardian of Enchanted Forest, being in love and rejected? Or her caring father? The whole show in Act 3 only a desperated try to show Odette that you can't trust human world? He could indeed act as someone known. Swan Lake reminds me a lot of Ondine (and Rotbart is then Kühleborn?). I believe in a happy ending in Swan Lake, whyever they decided an unusualyl tragic ending. The stolen veil, the white duck, all these famous fairy tales mentioned as inspiration for Swan Lake have a happy end. I think it wouldn't be wrong to see this as a possibility. But curiously all happy ends for Siefried and Odette never include Rotbart and Odile. Swan Lake is black and white, good against evil. Swan Lake has the craziest villain I can imagine, and if Rotbart is a trespassing court politician, why can’t Odette show more resistance and defend her Swan Kingdom? Odette is either a boring, helpless princess or a non-existing spirit, but she lacks all flesh and blood. And malicious Odile? Not better. Rotbart reminds me a lot of Darth Vader, but who has ever given him the chance to redeem himself? I can only remember one Swan Lake retelling, but he never survives Odette’s happy ending. Or is he Oberon tricking Titania? Who knows. If you ever read the original libretto of 1877, more questions arise than are answered. Perhaps Swan Lake never had a real story, but was an amalgam of several romantic tropes. Swan Lake is tragic, but there are also bright parts. Is it Tchaikovsky’s story? A quest for true love in this life? Or the Cinderella-Tattercoats-story of a prince who has to marry, but finds his girl outside of court? In times of Maleficent and Kylo Ren, we can’t think just black and white. Swan Lake is indeed a story about illusions (Neumeier). But who is real, and what’s the Swan Fake? This is the question here.
    (These are only honest thoughts of a Swan Lake lover, who fell in love with Rotbart while watching an old production with Derek Rencher. Liam Scarlett's Swan Lake is a brilliant option for those who love the famous ballet story, but I don't like the general story everyone is thinking of)

  22. Lesley Stansfield responded on 25 February 2018 at 12:17am Reply

    I am simply glad to hear that all the swans will be wearing short Tutus!! Never liked the longer ones for the swans. Can't wait to see the designs and costumes. Dowell's production was of its time and the designs were lauded and abhorred equally. I seem to remember that some dancers refused to wear the the original Odette headpiece...(or
    maybe it was just Sylvie Guillem)...and she was right! It was a BAD/UGLY Headpiece!!

    With Swan Lake....always the music transcends everything. I have seen the sad endings and the happy endings. Both work. I trust/fervently hope that Scarlett has not messed with Petipa's choreography, but has just added something.

    Ultimately, It's the central performances that make the magic. Can't wait to see the cast lists.

  23. Michael F responded on 5 March 2018 at 1:35pm Reply

    Will be interesting to see the new production. Glad the swans will be wearing tutus. Not sure about Act IV. I understand that musically it will go back to the original 1877 score but I rather like those two Tchaikovsky pieces that were orchestrated by Drigo for the 1895 production (Un Poco di Chopin & Valse Bluette.) My understanding is they also contain the original Ivanov choreography. Also I've personally never felt they musically break the elegiac mood any more than the Dance of the Cygnets & the oom-pa-pa of the Big Swans dance in Act II.

  24. D Gifford responded on 6 March 2018 at 9:56am Reply

    Having greatly enjoyed Yuhui Choe's Aurora I'd always hoped to see her take on O/O, but I guess that's never going to happen.

  25. Hugh Axton responded on 18 March 2018 at 1:15pm Reply

    In this her 20th anniversary season it is most appropriate that Marianela should dance the opening night of the new Swan Lake, and also the cinema performance. It is a pity that performance wasn't used as her "flower" show which would have given all her fans, not only in the UK but round the world, who could not see the unique celebration of her 20 years at the Royal Opera House after her second performance of Giselle this year. But we must be thankful for small mercies and no doubt the reception at the end of the first performance of SL will be special. I shall be at the Opera House for the first night and the filming performance and at the cinema for the cinema performance. I shall enjoy each performance tremendously. Having missed her during the last production of the previous Swan Lake when Marianela was moved from the Matinee performance, for which I had bought a ticket 4 months previously, to the evening performance - all of Marianela's other performances were sold out - I have waited for this for 3 years and am going to make the most of it.

    We Marianela fans are having a treat this season. This year we have seen her dance Giselle, Hermione in A Winters Tale, next she is Manon then she is Marguerite in Marguerite and Armand followed by Odette/Odille. Only Marianela can dance all of those roles with equal aplomb. She is exquisite.
    Hugh Axton

  26. Maggie responded on 31 March 2018 at 7:05am Reply

    Sílvia Torres/Valerie Knight among others. Please celebrate the new production. You do Ballet no favours by bitching about dancers in some of your comments. Destructive in the extreme. thank goodness we all have different opinions but no need for the bitchiness.

  27. Lyn responded on 31 March 2018 at 10:30pm Reply

    I am looking forward to this so much. I believe we should have an open mind in any art and it will be interesting to see Scarletts changes.
    As an aside, Australian Ballet totally changed Swan Lake and it was fabulous.
    Appreciate the dancers we can see and maybe not knock those who aren’t our favourites. In my mind they all do an amazing job of entertaining us.

  28. Pavlaki responded on 1 April 2018 at 5:55pm Reply

    I am really looking forward to seeing how this new production will cope with the mammoth task. I think Swan Lake is the hardest of all to stage, and I am glad John Macfarlane has been chosen as the designer. His work with RB and BRB has been highly intelligent, whereas the Dowell/Sonnabend production just didn't hack it for me, with its over intrusive set in Act 3, and the designer's irrelevant obsession with Faberge. I will reserve judgement though. Just like back in the 19th century, I find it too symphonic...

  29. daniel responded on 20 April 2018 at 9:42pm Reply

    I have a question will the new production include new costumes?

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 25 April 2018 at 12:50pm

      Hi Daniel,

      Yes, the new production will feature new costume designs as well as sets.

      Best wishes,

      Chris

  30. r.a. responded on 10 May 2018 at 3:53pm Reply

    I think the casting of Osipova/Ball is inspired. I saw then dance together in Giselle (also earlier in Strapless) and in my opinion he is the best partner I've seen her with since Carlos Acosta. Looking forward to seeing them dance together in Swan Lake very much. As for Silvia Torres's comments about Osipova - it's her comments that are laughable not Osipova's performance. I have been lucky enough to see many great ballerinas in the role. My absolute favourite was Ulyana Lopatkina but Osipova is a very close second and excelled particularly as Odile - the interaction between her and the audience was very exciting. She is an extraordinary performer and we are very lucky to have her at the Royal Ballet.

  31. Sean Daly responded on 12 May 2018 at 9:01pm Reply

    Is the Tchaikovsky score being used for the entire production?

  32. Miranda responded on 18 July 2018 at 9:25pm Reply

    I was wondering when and if this production will be released on DVD, I won’t get the chance to see it in cinema so I’d love to have it to watch at home!

  33. Morton Paley responded on 28 August 2018 at 11:37am Reply

    The casting of Osipova/Ball is wonderful! But when will there be in one of your screenings together? And when will there by a new dvd/blu-ray with them?

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