19 January 2018 at 4.15pm | 46 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.