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Swan Lake (Susan Elkin reviews)

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre

London Coliseum

Star rating: 4 ****

The Russians know how to do Tchaikovsky ballet. It’s in their blood just as Strauss waltzes live in the Vienese. So this version of Swan Lake – complete with happy ending which you don’t always get – from one of Russia’s foremost companies filled the lofty Coliseum to the gunwhales on press night. “Now sits expectation in the air” as Shakespeare put it.

And those expectations are amply fulfilled. Irina Kolesnikova, in the Odette/Odile role is one of the most celebrated dancers of her generation and it isn’t hard to see why. She has a liquid expansiveness in her movement through which she delivers charisma and imperiousness and she can pirouette continuously, apparently effortlessly for thirty bars or so. She has a very appealing, articulate grin too. Kolesnikova is one of those rare performers who commands a round of applause from the cognescenti on her first appearance before she dances a single step.

As Siegfried, Denis Rodkin (looking uncannily like Nureyev at times), languid and wistful with some excellent gravity-defying leaps, partners her elegantly in this strange fairy tale about a prince who falls in love with a swan princess and is then duped by a malevolent force into succumbing to her black twin.

There’s also a splendid performance from Sergei Fedorkov as the lithe and saucy jester. His acrobatic cartwheels, flips and long impressive spins are accomplished show stoppers and he packs plenty of sparky personality into the role too. Dmitriy Akulinin’s Rothbart, black, menacing and ubiquitous is pleasing too.

Well it’s a Tchaikovsky ballet so there are lots of set pieces to exploit the talents of the rest of the corps de ballet. The sparky Spanish dance – with the in-pit percussionist enjoying him (or her?) self on castanets is a high spot and the principal trumpet does a lovely job during the tambourine dance.

The sets and costumes are magnificent too. The fan vaulting with golden chandeliers for the party in Act 2 is very effective and every costume is spectacular although goodness knows why the six virginal girls paraded before Sigfried who’s meant to be choosing a bride, wear headdresses apparently borrowed from The Handmaid’s Tale. The king in act 1 looks off-puttingly like Oliver Ford Davis in one of his patrician roles too.

The real star of this show, however, is Tchaikovsky’s score – some of the most sublime and haunting music ever written. Here, with Vadim Nikitin conducting the Orchestra of English National Opera it mostly sings out and creates atmosphere as it should.

I wonder, though, how much rehearsal the orchestra had with the company? It took a while – too long really – for the music to settle at the beginning. Later there were too many wrong notes in the violin solo which accompanies Sigfried’s big pas de deux with Odile. Never mind, sitting at the stage left edge of the stalls I could hear the brass so clearly that I could, at times, have written out the trombone part. The Coliseum’s acoustics can sometimes be a bit skewed.

Oddest of all is the habit of the conductor’s taking his cues from the dancers rather than the other way round. It means frequent, quite long silent pauses before the appearance of the next dancer(s). A single step then acts like a conductor’s upbeat before Nikitin brings in the orchestra. Perhaps it’s how they do it in Russia but UK audiences are not used to this and it feels, repeatedly, as if something has gone momentarily wrong.

Minor gripes apart this is a very enjoyable production of one of the finest ballets of all time. It’s the third Swan Lake I’ve seen so far this year and I think it pips the other two (English National Ballet My First Swan Lake and Royal Opera House).

First published by Sardines:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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