by George Fleeton © 2013
Tchaikovsky, who died 120 years ago in circumstances which still remain unclear, wrote only three classical ballets, all in the final years of his life, and Swan Lake was the first of these.
His reputation as the greatest Russian composer, orchestrator and melodist is undiminished in the decades since.
Today his three ballets together surpass in popularity most of his operas and all but the last three of his six symphonies, while his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Violin Concerto are in a class of their own.
The Danish Peter Schaufuss Ballet company recently brought their radical interpretation of Swan Lake to the Grand Opera House Belfast (seen on September 16).
Ballet is asserting itself at this venue: the superb Great Gatsby was reviewed here on April 16 and Giselle was seen there on June 26.
Swan Lake has always been considered as an iconic example of high European culture, yet we remember that it failed critically and artistically when it opened in the Bolshoi Theatre in 1877.
We also know that Tchaikovsky attributed that failure to his music, and promised to revise it, but he died before so doing.
It finally succeeded (in 1895) at the Maryinsky Theatre St Petersburg.
Fonteyn first danced it in 1943, Nureyev in 1964 (three years after his defection), but we are told that their interpretations never surpassed those of Pavlova and Nijinsky in earlier years.
Swan Lake tells a good story well; it expresses moods (anger, fear, jealousy, joy and sadness) which are dramatically convincing; and the music and the dancing are as fully integrated one with the other, in delivering this narrative, as in any other classical ballet by any composer one cares to name.
For the record (because we couldn’t discern these features of the ballet in the Schaufuss production), Act 1 makes great use of traditional mime; Act 2 is almost pure dancing, with beautiful variations; Act 3 is the ballroom scene; and Act 4 is short but contains the work’s most moving music.
The Schaufuss production under review largely ignored this narrative, and compressed the work into two parts, each lasting under an hour, with some awkward transitions.
It was cheap (a plain, near-monochrome set, no props, very few costume changes, minor characters dropped, no orchestra, no souvenir programme), but cheerful in that Thaddaeus Low (still a teenager) gave a great account of himself as Siegfried, an outsider whose pushy mother was superbly danced by Katherine Watson, in the evening’s most understated performance.
Japanese ballerinas Ryoko Yagyu (the white swan, Odette) and Yoko Takahashi (Odile, the black swan) each excelled, especially sur les pointes towards the end; and the death of Siegfried and his transformation into a swan was a brilliant coup de theatre.