English National Ballet: Swan Lake – Palace Theatre, Manchester

Music: Tchaikovsky

Choreographer: Derek Deane (after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov)

Conductor: Gavin Sutherland

It’s rare to start a review with a nod to the Creator, but Peter Farmer’s set and costumes are the first thing to wow you in this lavish production. Like a Claude Lorraine painting, Act One’s palace courtyard is an ancient and glorious backdrop, filled with dancers in ornately decorated fairytale costumes. Farmer died in 2017, but this English National Ballet production has been part of the company’s repertoire for over two decades and is a fitting legacy for a designer and artist whose work embraced the traditional, played with wonderful color and brought this German folk tale, and many other stories, to life. Faced with this, Derek Deane reworked the choreography of Marius Pepita (1818-1910).

Think of classical ballet, and Swan Lake is what comes to mind. Its familiarity has led many directors to give it a little twist, a contemporary edge, but Deane’s production plays it completely straight, embracing tradition, even when that tradition is vaguely ridiculous.

A princess is stolen by a half-man, half-bird magician. He turns her into a swan. At the palace, the queen tries to marry the prince. It’s his birthday and the queen gives him a crossbow to go swan hunting. But rather than kill the Swan Queen (which of course is the princess – in fact, they’re all magical changelings), he falls in love with her. It’s a fairy tale. It doesn’t end well.

The evil wizard Rothbart (Junor Souza) is a pantomime figure here with outstretched wings, accompanied by a pair of goblin creature minions, but when he emerges from a low, hovering puddle of smoke and sweeps it away, he’s just as deliciously threatening. The Dance of the little swans – the piece with the four dancers with crossed arms that everyone knows – is both beautiful and rather comical. After all, cygnets are not the most graceful creatures. The Hungarian, Polish and Neapolitan dances in the third act are cheerfully folkloric with superb costumes that allude to traditional clothing. Beneath a ceiling adorned with twinkling lights, this international dance, like much of this ballet, is a series of sets, but Deane gives it a convincing party vibe. But above all, there is no compromise with tradition in the swan scenes. In dazzling white tutus and feathered headbands, shining in the dark, more than 24 dancers (we can’t count anymore) fill the stage in perfect synchronicity. Not only is it a pleasure to see so many performers on stage, but it’s a rare thing to see movement with such precision and grace. These scenes are truly captivating.

As you would expect, the whole company is at the top of their game, but ballet must always have its solo moments and these are provided here by Fernanda Oliveira as Odette/Odile and Ken Saruhashi in the role of Prince Siegfried whose performances are impeccable throughout this long and difficult ballet. At one point, Oliveira’s short solo as Odile, with pirouettes that never seem to stop, startles the audience.

However, something must be said about the audience. A full house for a noisy and restless crowd, which, although appreciative, was not very attentive. Post-lockdown, it’s as if people needed extra reminders to put their phones away, and even whispered conversations could be heard in an auditorium. At the start of the second act, after a brief scene change break, the orchestra was completely drowned out by loud conversation until the curtain rose, and it took time for quiet to return after two intervals quite long.

There’s something to be said for the traditional, a comfort in familiarity. This production proves that a well done classic will remain a classic, and will likely remain in the ENB repertoire for a long time. But if you can see it now, in Manchester or London, do it.

Until October 8, 2022