Flash Review, 8-2: Frontal action
English National 'Swan' goes round and round
By Victoria Watts
Copyright 2010 Victoria Watts
LONDON -- The Royal Albert Hall is a grand venue in scale and heritage. Since it hosted Arthur Sullivan's "On Shore And Sea" when it first opened in 1871 it has been home to culture high, low, and, above all, middlebrow. The English National Ballet's performance of Derek Deane's in-the-round production of "Swan Lake" hits this mark squarely. That is not a criticism. I see the merits for the company in presenting an unpretentious evening of dance with high production values and an astute awareness of what its audience might want. The ladies next to me when I saw the show on opening night, June 9, were quite transported. Certainly, there is a market for a ballet production that combines the dazzling spectacle and uncomplicated dynamic force of mass culture with the cachet of old-school elitism. The now-deceased French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would have a lot to say about this in terms of the intersections of class and 'taste.' And if I were in the mood for a bigger debate about value systems and the role of 'Culture' therein, I'd have a lot to say about it too. Instead, when I found my own mind wandering that way during the performance I diverted myself by imagining the Police's Stuart Copeland on horseback narrating the story of "Swan Lake," as he had the amazingly pompous "Ben Hur: the Spectacle" at London's 02 Arena late last year.
Deane's production has proven to be a hit with audiences and it seemed to me that it did very well as far as old-fashioned theatricality: trap doors, virile villains (the gorgeous Tamas Solymosi), jugglers and acrobats, cute and talented children, eerie smoke, and the unstoppable wondrous force of mass unison. The corps de ballet were fantastic covering the space at an exhilarating pace, and I very much appreciated being close enough to see who still really revelled in the pure joy of dancing and who performed through gritted teeth and rictus grin. These are the advantages of performances in-the-round for the audience, as is the set-up at the Royal Albert Hall. There is very little trade off between intimacy and scale. The performing area accommodated a corps of 60 female swans with room to spare, and yet easily a full quarter of the audience were seated close enough to see the whites of the dancers' eyes. The disadvantages seem very specific to ballet and its evolution as a frontally oriented form of display. Even with the almost constant change of front Vadim Muntagirov and Daria Klimentova endured in their several pas de deux as Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile respectively -- Deane attempts to adjust the ballet to accomodate his setting -- more often than not I saw the choreography from a disadvantageous angle. At times Deane used the corps to good effect, for example in framing the solo action to direct the audience to a particular understanding of the orientation of the performing space, but when this effort failed or simply was not made, the solo variations lost all spatial legibility in such a large space with no fixed front.
Muntagirov is a very young Prince, having only just turned 20. In Act I he skittered on his standing leg and I imagine it was simply a slight case of nerves that caused him to stumble slightly on a sequence of tours travelling upstage. By Act II he had found his center and was a sweetly gallant partner to Klimentova. I like a womanly ballerina, and Klimentova radiates intelligence, strength, maturity and passion in her distinctive interpretations of Odette and Odile. Muntagirov's youth makes his Prince Siegfried's infatuation with Odette and deception by Odile both plausible and touching. His facility in the sequence of lance-like jetés en avant en tournant en manege was remarkable, eliciting loud applause, and confirming him as a dancer to watch develop in strength and maturity over the next few years.