Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake ★★★★★

Scottish Ballet’s take on the timeless, iconic Swan Lake makes a long-overdue return to Scotland after its sell-out 2016 debut

Four years after its run was stymied by the Covid pandemic, David Dawson’s elegant, pared down Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet has taken flight to an enthusiastic reception at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. Booked for stops across Scotland, this is a production to catch if you can, even if you know the ballet well. Indeed, especially if you know the ballet well, because Dawson’s emotionally intense vision will surely make you see this well-worn classic with fresh eyes.

Swan Lake may be, as Scottish Ballet has it, the world’s most famous ballet, but its exploration of love and temptation by Siegfried, Odette, and Odile, Odette’s dark alter ego, has been told many ways over the years. It has even been given with a happy ending. Here, the tone is set as soon as the curtain rises, revealing Siegfried not only alone at the stage’s edge, but separated from the world around him by a framework of angles and lines. More than just a barrier, it’s a maze-like structure that evokes something impossibly out of reach, and may also speak of a mind fractured. Gone are elaborate court settings or lush, wooded groves – anything that maybe somehow familiar or comfortable. We, too, are invited to question what’s really going on in this oh-so-familiar story.

All images by Andy Ross

The tale is played out against a backdrop of grey curves, a stage-width shallow bowl of light, like a suspended sickle moon, and minimalist hung pillars suggestive of monied interiors. And not a tutu in sight. We open at a party in the home of Siegfried’s friend Benno (Thomas Edwards), where
privileged young men in dark trousers and block-coloured blazers work hard to impress the female objects of their affection, in matching dresses with floating skirts. In harmony with the set, the look is contemporary and stripped back, a striking achievement by costume designer Yumiko Takeshima,
whose dancewear was used for the 2010 Swan Lake-inspired movie Black Swan.

The seamless movement between numbers mirrors the flow of Tchaikovsky’s music while also suggesting a certain aimlessness – only broken when (this being Scotland in spring) Benno gestures with frustration that it’s starting to rain. For the most part, the socialising is all rather superficial. In
the opening scene, they are defined by little more than genial male embraces and arm slapping. Only here does Dawson’s vision lack focus – it’s as if he doesn’t know what to do with the man-boys. Though they do grow up as the story progresses, even in Act 2 they are rendered ineffectual by Odile
appears and her entourage. But perhaps that’s the point for, despite Benno’s encouragement for him to join in, this clearly isn’t Siegfried’s scene. Ours neither.

Siegfried’s scene, it turns out, is by the lake. Here, alone, Bruno Micchiardi’s Siegfried comes into his own: the helpless dreamer, at a loss how to find real love, his movement embodying a hesitancy that matches the music’s falling phrases, and his sweeping arms at times anticipating the swans soon to appear.

When they do, it is in leotards embroidered with the subtlest suggestion of feathers, dancing with extended, classical lines – with the reach of birds in flight. Dawson’s intention to reveal the athletic strength that underpins the delicacy of his dancers, and to focus on ‘each elegant flex of sinew and muscle’, is fully realised in this production, most especially in his female dancers. This is their moment, both the supporting artists and, in particular, the remarkable Sophie Martin, dancing the dual role of Odette/Odile.

Her entrance as Odile in Act 2, supported by threatening, masked acolytes, is breath-taking, but it’s in her long pas de deux with Siegfried, both as Odette and as Odile, that she excels. The latter has an assured knowingness and sensuality that lures Siegfried in, sealing the inevitably of his broken heart. But as Odette, the delicacy Martin achieves is as captivating for the audience as for Siegfried. Dawson wants his Odette to be a powerful, magical creature. For that reason, he has excised from this re-telling the evil magician Rothbert, who in traditional productions holds the swan maidens captive. His presence makes Odette passive, Dawson says, and there is nothing passive about Martin’s sinewy, startingly flexible yet airy performance.

Of the lead pairing, Martin is given the most dramatic movements, but together she and Micchiardi find a stillness in each other’s yearning that echoes Tchaikovsky’s spare, intertwining lines of harp and solo violin, beautifully rendered by Meredith McCracken and Robert Gibbs. Together, Martin
and Micchiardi are profoundly moving.

It is in fact these still moments that remain hauntingly in the mind after the story comes to its devastating close. Micchiardi momentarily expressing his helplessness directly to the audience; the swans reappearing in Act 2, entranced, staring into the distance. Siegfried alone at the end, that mysterious framework once again suggesting both a bewildered mind and a broken heart.

This emotionally intense vision will surely make you see this well-worn classic with fresh eyes – ★★★★★ 5 stars

Scottish Ballet's Swan Lake Tour

Scottish Ballet's tour of Scotland continues in Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh

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