It is apt, if surely not planned, that the Royal Ballet’s revival of Anthony Dowell’s Swan Lake should coincide with the release of the film Black Swan.
I haven’t yet seen the film, but the story follows a ballerina named Nina’s embarkation on an arduous journey to find the ‘Black Swan’ inside her, so that she can play not only the virtuous Odette but also the evil Odile in Swan Lake.
All I can say is it is fortunate that Natalie Portman takes the role of Nina and not Sarah Lamb, for so effortless is her command of Odile that I can’t help feeling there wouldn’t be much of a film.
She utilises the same underlying technique that makes her Odette such a triumph, but for very different purposes. It left me wondering how many dancers demonstrate such affinity with all the steps required of them that they seem to have been born to play both roles.
Anthony Dowell’s production, originally from 1987, is a delight in its own right. Building on Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s legendary choreography it does not offer any particularly revolutionary stance on the ballet, but that is rather its strength. By providing such an exemplary and detailed study of Swan Lake on terms that we are guaranteed to understand, it comes close, at least, to providing a definitive version.
Dowell’s production contains a wealth of human interest as even the most minor characters are developed into real people, and the entire stage is frequently filled with a host of diverse, but tightly choreographed, activity. The stage, which boasts rich gateways and thrones alongside silky, glistening ‘cobwebs’, creates a total ballet experience in which the hanging lanterns contribute just as much to the visual effect as any dancer.
The star of the performance, however, is undoubtedly Sarah Lamb, whose movements demonstrate immeasurable clarity, elegance and lyricism. The detail in her steps is exquisite, and her interaction with Federico Bonelli’s Siegfried captivating. Their Act Two pas de deux is particularly fine as Bonelli matches her for straightness and grace. This ensures that every momentarily fixed pose possesses wondrous beauty, while feeling at one with the movements that surround it by virtue of the fluidity with which it has been arrived at.
There is also an obvious chemistry between the pair. Even as Odette expresses her fear and shyness as she first encounters Siegfried, she hints that there is a strong connection between these two spirits. Then in Act Three she subtly adjusts the same type of gesture to dupe Siegfried as she continually rushes to Rothbart (Christopher Saunders) to receive instructions on what to do next. Similarly, her basic lyrical technique is now utilised to present one seriously seductive Odile, and never before have I seen the 32 fouettés feel quite so flashy. Towards the end of the act Lamb and Bonelli really look as if they are enjoying themselves, which is totally in keeping with the notions of infatuation, and deception through seduction, at a heady ball.
Particular mention must also go to Iohna Loots, Emma Maguire and Kenta Kura for their Act One pas de trois. Kura, in particular, proves a wonderfully balanced dancer who can turn through the air at whirlwind speed, while all three find an exceptional affinity with Tchaikovsky’s music as they glide across the stage. In the pit Valeriy Ovsyanikov produces a balanced and detailed account of the score. If occasionally it lacks a little in flair, on far more occasions his technical command of the music is itself responsible for generating moments of real and utter intensity. This Swan Lake is a truly unmissable experience.