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It takes a bit of getting used to, this ballet ‘in-the-round’ lark, but, as English National Ballet’s excellently-staged Swan Lake proved, it’s worth the effort for all the different viewpoints you get.
Act I is always a bit weird, whatever version you see, because it contains very little story. Somehow, and despite the addition of acrobats and jugglers, it seemed even more obvious in the Royal Albert Hall’s imposing interior. Because there’s no real focus you find yourself drawn to the performers posted around the perimeter who are invariably the characters traditionally found lurking at the back of the stage and who are distractingly giving each other little more than sickly-sweet smiles and peculiarly sexless caresses.
Only when the Rothbart and all 60 of his swans pour onto the stage in a cascade of dry ice for Act II does the spectacle really take off. The sheer volume of unified swans is not only stunning to look at (particularly when their arms are all fluttering above their heads) but also makes Rothbart appear a far more sinister figure than usual due to the fact that he’s controlling so many.
What also becomes apparent in Act II is another major feature of ‘in-the-round’ performances. In a neat solution to having to perform to several different sides of the auditorium at once, the ballet’s choreographer Derek Deane has employed two teams of Cygnets to perform their famous quartet and has them moving in all sorts of directions. The exciting result is that you get to see the familiar choreography from angles you wouldn’t normally be privy to.
Likewise with the two lead roles. They’re not always facing you so you’re sometimes watching Tamara Rojo’s legs spring out from the back of her tutu which, although not always as elegant as the front view, is interesting because you’re able to see some of the mechanics involved in making something look so graceful.
Rojo and her special guest, Matthew Golding from Dutch National Ballet, took a while to get going. Golding appeared to struggle with the floor in his opening solo and their ‘white swan’ pairing was performed beautifully but without much emotional connection. However, they both came alive big time in the ‘black swan’ pas de deux. Stretching themselves across the huge stage space they filled the auditorium with fabulous bravura dancing. Golding’s leaps went way up in the air and he showed magnificent control on his spins while Rojo’s fouettés were astonishingly well executed. They finished to a huge ovation and it was great to see two such experienced dancers looking so genuinely excited and happy about what they’d accomplished.
The orchestra, sitting pretty atop the minimal set, sounded strong and it was also good to be able to see Peter Farmer’s terrific costumes up close, not only on the stage, but also as the characters marched in and out through the stalls entrances. In short, it was all a bit of an education and a rather good one at that.
Swan Lake ‘in-the-round’ runs at the Royal Albert Hall until 23 June 2013 and tickets can be found on the English National Ballet website.