by Emma Pegler
July 25, 2003 -- Covent Garden, London
The Kirov's "Swan Lake" is the Konstantin Sergeyev version which premiered in March, 1950 at the Kirov Theatre in what was then, Leningrad. However many times I see "Swan Lake," whichever the production, I still look forward to it with something close to the fervour and excitement that I felt as a child when I first began ballet classes and aspired to be a great ballerina.
This time I was less excited because Odette/Odile was to be Sofia Gumerova, replacing Daria Pavlenko who had been taken ill on her arrival in London. I know Pavlenko's dancing well but didn't really know Gumerova in any notable or sizeable roles. Further, Prince Siegfried was due to be danced by Danila Korsuntsev and I have poor memories of his performance of the role some years back in St Petersburg. The joys of booking blind (not knowing from the Kirov in advance whether your £80 for a top-price seat is being spent on your favourite dancers or those who leave you thinking that you wished you had 'gone a little cheaper.' If Odette/Odile is wrong, the whole ballet falls apart pretty much, however good the corps de ballet swans.
Well, thank God, Gumerova is a fine Odette/Odile, and Korsuntsev must just have been having an off-night when I saw him in St Petersburg. There isn't a great deal for the Prince to do in Sergeyev's version (well, in the original 1895 version by Petipa and Ivanov, generally).
Later versions have evolved the man's role to reflect the heightened virtuosity of modern male ballet dancers) other than to gesticulate to party guests, look questioningly at the Jester's antics, raise his arms lovingly to Odette, present Odile to the Queen and get cross at Von Rothbart, none of which involves much dancing. Yet Korsuntsev was a noble Russian dance practitioner throughout and performed his one occasion for virtuosity at the ball in Act II, where he mistakes Odile for Odette and indicates to the Queen (with much gesticulation by way of mime) that he has finally found the woman (swan) he wishes to marry with aplomb and cleanness of execution. He lacked the factor X that would have made me wish I was Odette, but he was every inch the handsome, regal prince at whom you don't feel very cross because it seems that he has made a genuine mistake. (I prefer a darkly handsome rakish prince where you're left wonderingá) So the resulting chemistry between Prince and Swan Queen is nicely charged, although not desperately passionate.
The set design by Igor Ivanov and costumes by Galina Solovyova are a huge success. The vaulted ballroom in Act II, with pages on minstrel gallery-like balconies and guests draped on rich red Oriental carpets, is a Renaissance dream. Some "Swan Lake" productions are so steeped in Gothic imagery that we wonder if the guests went to the wrong ball and ended up in Dracula's castle by mistake, but this version is subtle and refined.
On the whole the costumes are apt for the times and if occasionally they lapse into a medieval past, that is probably reflective of the age since the Renaissance period preserved much of the late medieval. There is, however, no excuse for the Queen's dreadful dresses and totally ridiculous wimples. In Act I she sports a white chiffon number tight and severe at the bodice, dropping to an A-line, floaty floor-length skirt -- with a low-slung belt that drapes down the dress. She looked like Ginger Rogers starring in 'Snow White' the musical. The ball-dress for Act II has strange cut out sleeves that make the costume too medieval for the setting -- a Queen would surely have an up-to-the-minute design -- and she sits at the back watching the proceedings like a caricature cartoon. To look more queen-like, she has been given paste diamonds from the 1930s and an Ostrich-feather fan that could not have been purchased before 1920. Perhaps she is meant to look timeless -- a queen from any age. She parades around the stage in a very over-stated queenish way and sits next to next to an over-the-top Von Rothbart.
In Act I he is given strange little black wings and prowls in a consciously atmospheric way around the smoking lake. In Act II, surely the pages should alert Palace security to the fact that a weirdo 'traveller' has turned up at the ball and is sitting dangerously close to the Royal Family? A black and red silk and velvet cape cannot disguise the slashed and straggly clothing underneath nor detract from his thickly-applied red eyeshadow. (Still, Osama Bin Laden managed to get into Windsor Castle during Prince William's birthday party so I suppose Act II is not that far-fetched.)
There is a very tender moment in Act I, however, where the Queen allows her son to kiss her hand to thank her for the diamond-encrusted bow she has given him. She then draws him to her and kisses his forehead in a very motherly way. This is a very credible and human gesture. Good moments make good ballet.
So what about the dancing, I hear you ask? Absolutely superb, which is why I can afford to be persnickety about the costumes.
The swans move like one body -- sleek, poetic, tragic and elegant, all at once. Utterly believable. The only criticism I have is that the Kirov ballerinas have yet to silence their toe-shoes. There is too much audible clicking on the boards when the music is quiet.
Elvira Tarasova and Irina Zhelonkina as the Prince's friends in Act I transform supporting roles into star-studded cameos. They are soloists in the Kirov, but being a company of such high-standards in technical prowess and grace, these dancers would be principals in most other companies. Petipa's choreography comes alive under their light touch and I wanted their moments of glory to continue into infinity. Both demonstrated supreme virtuosity dusted with a go lden gracefulness to produce true dance.
I have seen many a principal dancer lost in the minor roles of a major ballet. Some dancers bring nothing to ballet unless they have the limelight. Being able to shine in a supporting role is surely the mark of a great dancer. Sofia Gumerova is an elegant Odette with good feathery air. On occasion her face is too much a study in pain and dwells on the fact that she is a human locked into a bird's body. We rarely see in her the ethereal quality of a mythical creature. Some Odettes look positively other-worldly but Gumerova is always a woman in swan's clothing. This isn't wrong for the part, just not how I, personally, want Odette to be. Her Odile is studied and cool --foot-perfect in her solos and perfect in executing von Rothbart's instructions to seduce the Prince.
The Jester is a controversial character. He was not, I believe, in the original Petipa/Ivanov version and does not appear in all productions today. Some people love the distraction of a cavorting joker and some people find him odious. I tend towards the former but found Andrei Ivanov the perfect jester, if you have to have a jester. He doesn't irritate the other characters with persistent tomfoolery and his close-to-the-earth jumps and turns are a delight. He received a loud and spontaneous applause which is not something that happens very often at Covent Garden.
The final point to make in remembrance of my evening is that the orchestra of the the Mariinsky Theatre did great justice to Tchaikovsky's score under the direction of Boris Gruzin. "Swan Lake" is a production where the music and choreography receive equal billing and on occasions I wanted to close my eyes and let the melody ensnare me in the fairy tale.
Edited by Catherine Pawlick.
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